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New Missouri History Museum Head Lauded But Report Adds To Criticism Of Institution

photo of frances levine
From video by Nancy Fowler

A solid round of applause welcomed Frances Levine as she entered the meeting that finalized her presidency of the Missouri History Museum on Tuesday. Shortly afterward, she also received kudos from her home in Santa Fe, where she’s been director of the New Mexico History Museum for more than 10 years.

There, she oversaw the development and construction of the museum's 96,000-square-foot building that opened in May 2009 on the campus of the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, according to New Mexico History Museum marketing manager Kate Nelson. Nelson called Levine a “force of nature” whose lunchtime walks are often interrupted by the many people who stop her to talk.

“Everyone knows who Fran Levine is here,” Nelson told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon, adding “She’s one of the best collaborative leaders I’ve ever worked with.”

Levine was also praised by Veronica Gonzales, secretary of New Mexico’s cultural affairs department: “... she is a strategic leader in the museum profession,” Gonzales noted in a statement released by the New Mexico institution.

Here in St. Louis, Zoo-Museum District (ZMD) board member Charles Valier is taking a wait-and-see attitude about Levine. Valier, who’s been a vocal critic of the Missouri History Museum’s governance, said he knows little about her. But Valier said he does know this: Levine’s performance in her new job here may not matter.

“Until there’s real reform in terms of governance, everything is immaterial,” Valier told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon.

‘Nobody Wants Real Reform’

Valier’s response reflects more than a year of controversy surrounding the History Museum.

He acknowledges that alterations in the museum’s operating agreement set forth in a plan by former Sen. John Danforth are a good start toward remediation. But “nobody wants real reform,” he said, calling the plan “a cosmetic change.”

photo of alderman joeph roddy
Credit Provided by the Board of Aldermen
Joseph Roddy

Valier agrees “in general” with the draft of new report from St. Louis Alderman Joe Roddy, chairman of the parks committee, calling for change not only in the history museum but the entire ZMD. The museum is one of five institutions of the ZMD, along with the Zoo, the Art Museum, the Botanical Garden and the Science Center.

Among the targets for criticism in the nine-page report were the more than $500,000 paid to former History Museum president Robert Archibald for unused vacation and the $270,000 consulting fee that followed his retirement. Archibald left the museum amid controversy over issues including his $375,000 salary, supplemented by housing and car allowances totaling $45,000.

Levine’s base salary is $235,000, which is $140,000 less than Archibald’s but nearly three times her pay at the New Mexico institution. According to the New Mexico state government website, Levine’s annual salary as a Division Director II with the Department of Cultural Affairs was $81,809.

The nine-page Roddy reportincluded a statement that “The ZMD needs to reinvent itself. It should no longer be a ceremonial rubber stamp of the budgets of the member institutions.”

The ZMD makes decisions about $70 million in tax money for the five institutions.

Roddy told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon that he expects the parks committee and later the Board of Alderman to adopt the report. But that doesn’t necessarily mean change will result.

“It’s mostly a bully pulpit, Roddy said.

Roddy added that he hopes the document will “create some dialogue and hopefully some voluntary compliance at the ZMD level and perhaps heighten awareness of these issues in the mayor’s office so they will think about types of candidates who would support changes.”

Earlier this month, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley named interior design executive Patricia Whitaker as a Zoo Museum District board member. She replaces real estate broker Jerome Glick, who fought vigorously for change in the Missouri History Museum's governance. The appointment required no confirmation by the full county council.

The Missouri History Museum did not receive a copy of the draft of the Roddy report this week, the museum’s board of trustees chairman John Roberts noted in Tuesday’s meeting. The four other ZMD institutions have been given a copy, Roddy acknowledged.

“Frankly, I was trying to figure out who the best person was to call at the history museum,” Roddy said.

Levine: ‘It Will Be An Adventure’

During an exclusive St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon interview with Levine on Monday, Roberts praised Levine and the museum’s process for finding her.

“We did a very thorough search for the most qualified candidate, and the good news is they had a lot of very qualified candidates and, in my view, we came out with the most qualified candidate,” Roberts said.

Credit Nancy Fowler
Trustees vote for Levine's appointment.

But some tension was evident even as the trustees and members of the ZMD subdistrict commission completed a task in which they were almost all in agreement: finalizing Levine as president.

How should the vote be taken? At the start of the Tuesday meeting, Roberts asked for a joint vote of both the commissioners and the trustees. But trustee Wayne Goode was adamant that the rules require a vote of the trustees, alone.

“The only way we can elect this new CEO properly is by following our bylaws and by having just the board of trustees vote. I don’t think that’s going to change the outcome one bit but I think we’re legally bound to do that,” Goode said.

Roberts initially resisted making any kind of change on the spot.

“Wayne raises some issues that should be dealt with at a future meeting,” Roberts said.

But after much discussion, in which some felt a pair of votes would further muddy the waters, Roberts asked to hold two votes: one involving both governing bodies and one with just the trustees.

After the debate, the two sets of votes, and the applause at her entrance, Levine told the group she was pleased to join them and is looking forward to an eventful turn at the helm of the history museum.

“It will be an adventure for me to be here,” Levine said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: NancyFowlerSTL

Reporter Mary Delach Leonard contributed to this story.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.