Gibbes without a leader: Smith's resignation announcement was sudden and unexpected

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The Gibbes Museum of Art this evening sent a press release announcing the resignation of Todd Smith, executive director. In brief, it says it's effective April 1. From then until June 30, he will act as the museum's "director of special projects." Meanwhile, the board of directors will appoint an interim director and search for a permanent replacement.

The release continues with information about when Smith began his brief tenure (March 2006) and what he did while he was at the Gibbes. Pretty typically press release stuff. What's interesting is that it recounted some of Smith's achievements, all really positive:

  • re-accreditation with the American Association of Museums
  • executing "financial discipline"
  • re-branding the museum
  • prioritizing contemporary art in the Gibbes' already impressive collection

Then there's getting top ranking among arts organizations by the South Carolina Arts Commission, plus some elucidating statistics. During Smith's tenure, membership grew by 7.5 percent; admissions revenue grew by nearly 4 percent; big-money donations increased by more than 6 percent. As always with these things, they inspire questions, not answers.

I've been able to discern that Smith's quitting was sudden and unexpected. The Gibbes' staff found out at 3 p.m. today. Evidently, the Post and Courier knew before some staffers. It posted a breaking news alert a little after 2 o'clock today. I've also learned that Smith is not leaving for another position, which makes sense given how sudden this is all happening. If he were leaving for another post, he'd see out the rest of his contract or the year or some other time frame. It wouldn't be out of the blue like this. Besides, he's been here two years. That's just enough time to get things into ship shape and start dreaming of what could be.

I say the positive stuff in the press release is interesting, because it may suggest something about why Smith is leaving so suddenly. It may be his decision. But perhaps it's not. He was hired to change the image and direction of the Gibbes. To a large extent, that meant building a new museum, something that he told me he'd wanted to do.

It's not unheard of for museum board members to say they want something and then balk when it comes time to act on doing that thing they said they wanted. If push comes to shove in this kind of potentially volatile environment (and I'm not saying that this is; I don't know much right now), if someone's head is going to roll, it's not going to be a board member's.

If Smith was so good as raising revenue, admissions, and prestige, why would he be leaving? And why did the newspaper know about Smith's imminent resignation before his staffers, many of whom he hired. It's not in his or their best interest for museum staffers to learn that the guy who hired them is about to step down via the newspaper.

It's more plausible the information was released by a board member or at the request of a board member. Given how hurried this whole affair has been, that makes the most sense given what little we know right now.

That said, more later . . .

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