By Kara Rodriguez & Renss Greene
The Loudoun Museum is closed for the foreseeable future after Executive Director Leslie Mazeska was fired and the remaining museum staff have resigned.
Program Director Leah Cooper, Collections Manager Kelly Sheely, and Visitor and Member Services Coordinator Gabrielle Patterson told Loudoun Now they submitted their resignations July 12. The resignations are part of a shakeup and power struggle centered around the museum’s leadership and board of trustees.
Mazeska’s hire in May 2017 was one of the several benchmarks set forth by the Board of Supervisors, which required among other things that the museum hire an executive director to receive $156,000 a year in county government funding. In July 2016, county supervisors, frustrated at repeated bailouts and additional funding for the museum, set out a series of quarterly benchmarks to win that funding after months of negotiations. Last September, county staff members reported the museum had met those benchmarks, which included redefining the board of trustees’ responsibilities and tripling the amount of money its members must contribute to $3,000 each.
The new board of trustees, including Chairman Michael O’Connor, Vice Chairwoman Sharon Virts, Treasurer Eric Bost, Sally Travis, Mary Frances Forcier, and Cyndi Urbano, was installed by an ad-hoc committee Jan. 1. Urbano resigned in mid-June.
The board passed a vote of no confidence in Mazeska, who had been hired by the previous board, on June 21.
According to documents provided by the former museum staff members, Mazeska had called an annual members’ meeting for June 27. Members of the board of trustees dispute her authority to call that meeting, and Virts said some board members were not notified.
The former museum staff wrote in a statement that per the museum’s bylaws, there must be an annual members’ meeting in June, but the board had yet to organize one. None of the newly selected board members attended the June 27 meeting.
“Ultimately, three new Board members [Ricky Keech, Larry Stipek and Mike Henry] were nominated to be on the Loudoun Museum Board of Trustees,” the staffers wrote. “The membership present at the meeting elected all three nominees and did not re-elect/ratify three of the January 1, 2018 Board Members.” At least one of them, Stipek, was a member of the previous board, before the January board was installed. The museum members at the meeting voted out O’Connor, Virts, and Travis.
The January appointees did not recognize the legitimacy of Mazeska’s meeting, nor the votes or new board members. Keech, Stipek and Henry have since resigned.
With board membership in dispute, on July 1 the three staffers sent a letter to the January board appointees asking them to allow the staff to focus on museum operations and pre-planned programs, while delaying any long-term planning for the museum, including new exhibits, until the dispute was resolved. Staff members said this came after members of the board had gauged Sheely’s interest in assuming the position of interim executive director, which she ultimately declined.
“They were just confused, and didn’t want to take direction from a board that they didn’t know or think was valid, and they wanted to figure that out,” Virts said. “That sort of prompted a lot of this. So we did what we thought was best.”
Board members decided to suspend the museum staff and close the museum while the museum’s attorney, Steven Price, researched whether the January board was properly installed. Museum staff resigned before Price published his opinion. On July 13, Price wrote to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to say that he considered O’Connor, Virts, Bost, Travis, and Forcier to be the duly elected trustees of the museum.
Staff members said that the last they’ve heard from the board members elected in January was when the staff were suspended.
“There has not been any communications … about the suspension, how long we could expect to be suspended for, being reinstated, or even if they were going to fire us,” they wrote in their statement. “This ambiguity about our future at the museum became unsupportable due to the loss of income and not knowing when, or if, we should have expected to be back to work.” Later the same day they submitted their resignations, they were informed that the three board members elected in June had also resigned.
The trio of former staffers expressed their disappointment that all the strides made in the last year may be in jeopardy. Among the initiatives they were set to roll out were custom membership cards, getting the building ready to host small-scale events or birthday parties to produce a new stream of revenue, and working toward accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums by participating in a museum assessment program. This in the midst of a year that they felt had moved the county museum in a positive direction, after meeting fundraising benchmarks set by the county Board of Supervisors.
“We are incredibly disappointed that our plans to revitalize the Museum and make it a dynamic, inclusive, and conscientious steward of our history have been put on hold,” they wrote. “We hope that the current leadership dispute has not rendered our efforts in vain, and that the Museum survives to continue its important place in the Loudoun County community.”
O’Connor, the board president installed in January, had previously stated the board’s desire to get the museum back up and running with the appropriate staff. He vowed that the recent turn of events is not the end for Loudoun Museum.
“We appreciate the efforts that have been made in [the staff members’] brief tenure and they should know they have helped the museum move along in our efforts to bring it back to life,” he said.
And Virts said she does not expect the shakeup to interfere with meeting the latest set of benchmarks to receive county funding. The museum is seeking a new executive director, with whom the board will consult about what staff that director needs.
She also said the museum’s programming will continue, including the annual Leesburg Hauntings Tours; new exhibits in the fall; a major fundraiser at the historic Selma Mansion, where Virts lives; and new “major events” in 2019.
“It gives us an opportunity to start over and get the folks in there that have a vision for relevance, approachability, and sustainment that we need for the museum to be an award-winning community museum,” Virts said. “That’s what I’m looking to make it.”
And she said ultimately the museum “has to get off the county’s dole.”
“I always believe the county is going to be providing some sort of financial support, but it can’t be the main source of funds,” Virts said.
The Loudoun Museum was founded in 1967, set up first in the 1764 log cabin silversmith shop on Loudoun Street and later expanded to two town-owned buildings along Wirt Street. The museum’s collection includes documents signed by George Washington and James Monroe, as well as letters exchanged between freed slaves writing home from Liberia to their former masters, historic maps, fine arts, photographs, postcards, textiles, furniture and tools.