Family issues led to resignation

Maryland Historical Society head quits after four months

October 21, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The resignation Tuesday of Maryland Historical Society Executive Director W. Eric Emerson - less than four months after taking the job - caught staff and board members off guard, though his indecision had been evident, museum officials said.

Emerson and board members say he resigned for family reasons. In a statement, board President Henry Stansbury said Emerson, who headed the South Carolina Historical Society before being appointed July 1 to the Maryland position, realized that "it is really in his family's best interest to remain in Charleston" because he had two young children in school there.

"It's clear he was wrestling with this for some time," Stansbury said. "He was going back and forth on weekends, but basically he never moved here. We asked him 60 days ago, 30 days ago, when he was going to move. It's hard to uproot a family, but after 90 days it was apparent that wasn't going to happen."

The board has yet to decide how or when to begin searching for a new director, Stansbury said. Rob Rogers, 36, the society's chief operating officer, will serve as interim director until a replacement is found.

"Eric had great thoughts, and we're moving forward on them," Rogers said. "There's no thought of more layoffs or cuts."

Rogers, who has a background in management, served as interim director earlier this year after the departure in December of Director Dennis Fiori, who resigned to become head of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The society has been struggling in recent years to reduce significant operating deficits, caused by its rapid expansion over the past decade, when revenues remained largely flat.

Before coming to the historical society in 2004, Rogers was executive vice president at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and chief financial officer of National Arts Stabilization.

"We are extremely fortunate that Rob is willing to assume the director's responsibilities immediately," Stansbury said. "Rob enjoys the respect of both staff and trustees and will do a fine job."

In the society's statement this week, Emerson, 40, described his resignation as "a hard decision," but said "my wife and I have decided that our ties with South Carolina are too strong to be easily broken."

Stansbury declined to discuss the financial agreement reached between the board and Emerson but said Emerson would remain a consultant through July 1.

Reached by phone, Emerson described his home in Charleston as "a beguiling place. I think my heart was here all along. My family's loved it here, and the thought of taking them away was just too much."

Emerson's former position in South Carolina has been filled, Walter Edgar, chairman of the board, said in an e-mail message.

"This is a leap of faith on my part, to choose a location that I love and my family loves," Emerson said. "My family's happiness is more important than anything professionally that's happening here."

Emerson inherited an institution that had been struggling to reduce a $600,000 deficit estimated for this year - down from more than $1 million in several previous years. The society has an annual budget of about $4 million and an endowment of $18 million.

During his first month on the job, Emerson announced staff cuts that eliminated a fifth of the society's 60 employees. He also restructured departments, in hopes of saving $500,000 to $600,000 a year.

At the time, Emerson insisted the changes were needed to put the institution on a firm financial footing. But later he conceded the financial problems were more severe than he had realized when he accepted the director's job.

This week, Rogers and board members discouraged speculation that Emerson's departure was prompted by the society's financial stresses or that it would affect the society's long-range programs and plans.

The society still plans to mount major exhibitions this season on the Baltimore Basilica and on slavery in Maryland, as well as rehab its Howard Street storage facility and move the staff into new offices in the library building, they said.

In addition, Stansbury said, the society would lease its current administration building to a commercial tenant and continue its educational outreach and publishing programs.

"It's not a crisis," said board Chairwoman Barbara Katz. "We are in very good shape, we have wonderful exhibits opening, and the important thing is the institution, which has been around for 160 years and will be around for another 160 years."

Board member Louise Hayman described Emerson's resignation as "an unfortunate bump in the road, but we'll survive it."

Hayman said one lesson to be drawn from the incident is that "it's really hard to be absolutely sure you're hiring somebody who's going to work out until they actually start, particularly if there's a move involved. It's a major upheaval for a family."

Remarking on why she thought Emerson left, Hayman said, "My impression is there were a lot of things - family, life in Baltimore, or it could be just the enormity of the task at hand. [As board members] you make sure you do your best to make everything compatible, but it isn't infallible."

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