Visual Art News - Criticism: April 2008 Archives
Todd Smith shocked everyone last week when he resigned as executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art (in Charleston, S.C.).
The sudden and unexpected decision became effective Tuesday. Until June 30, Smith will serve as director of special projects while an interim replacement is found and a new director search is launched. An official press release said what we already knew: Smith was resigning. It didn't elaborate much further except to list his accomplishments.
Since March 2006, Smith led an effort to rebrand the museum's identity, he shepherded its re-accreditation with the American Association of Museums (a long, complicated process), and he brought back fiscal discipline.
Smith was hired to usher the Gibbes into the thick of the 21st century. That meant overseeing a new brand, an assertive outreach program, a renewed network of development, imaginative and culturally relevant exhibitions, and a collection refreshed by new work.
That also meant building a new facility to replace or augment the current Gibbes Museum. Building, Smith told me in an interview last January, was a major reason he took the job. The board was eager to expand and grow. He was ready to build. It was a good match all around. Now he's leaving. Why?
The official line did little to stop speculation (including my own) that Smith was pushed out. My hunch was that he'd locked horns with the wrong board member over how, when, and how much it would take to build a new museum. I wasn't alone. Others were skeptical, too.
The Post and Courier surmised in a March 25 report that Smith was fired, either because he presented too much contemporary art or because he didn't present enough (the article seems to contradict itself in guessing that the reasons were both). Other rumors spread that Smith wasn't doing the job he was hired to do.
These are barely plausible theories. By all accounts, Smith and the board agreed, for the most part, on the role of contemporary art. As for job performance, most measures indicate at least modest gains -- membership grew by 7.5 percent and large donations by 6 percent during his brief tenure. What bothered me was that Smith was the second executive director in six years to step down. It was starting to look like an institutionally unhealthy pattern.
But after several conversations with board members, museum staffers, and former employees (most of whom were granted anonymity because they did not want to be identified commenting on his imminent departure), it appears there is little more behind Smith's resignation than a change of heart.