LONG BEACH — Poised on the verge of a multimillion-dollar fund-raising effort, the Long Beach Museum of Art has become embroiled in a controversy that has alienated many of the patrons and volunteers upon whom the effort will depend.
"It shows that we have ineffective leadership," said Ed Kmotorka, a donor who has contributed thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours over the past three years. Kmotorka recently declined to renew his membership after calling for a city representative to be placed on the museum foundation's board of directors to oversee its "irrational" behavior.
Said Judith Luther, the foundation's former president and a longtime supporter: "This doesn't seem to be a very good time to have members bailing out. This isn't the kind of thing you do when you are starting out on a good-will campaign."
At the center of the controversy is Barbara Hendricks, a 23-year museum employee who has been ousted from her job as manager of the museum's bookstore and gallery effective April 30, just eight months before her 65th birthday.
Museum officials say the move is part of a cost-cutting measure designed to make the institution more fiscally responsible.
Hendricks and dozens of supporters say it is ill-advised and poorly timed, especially in light of the museum's unprecedented effort to raise between $5 and $6 million to finance a proposed relocation to a larger facility downtown.
In addition, they say, the action shows a shocking lack of sensitivity and violates the spirit of a 3-year-old agreement with the city under which the institution left 30 years of municipal management to come under the auspices of the private Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation.
To make their point, Hendricks' supporters have engaged in a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign that has involved City Council members and the city employees union. They have also attempted to meet with board members to urge them to reconsider their decision and in some cases have threatened to withhold future support or dropped their museum memberships entirely.
Hendricks' problems began March 10 when she received a letter from museum director Stephen Garrett informing her of the board's decision to restructure the operation of the bookstore to include an art rental gallery. Consequently, Garrett said, Hendricks' $28,000-a-year position as bookstore manager would be phased out and replaced by a $24,000-a-year position entitled sales and events manager, for which the longtime employee was welcome to apply.
Board President Linda McCullough said the decision to restructure is designed to counter the bookstore's mounting deficit, which this year exceeds $10,000. By adding the service for community members interested in renting space to exhibit original works of art, she said, the museum hopes not only to erase the deficit, but perhaps even turn a profit.
"We considered closing the bookstore," McCullough said, "but we decided instead to look into ways of making revenue by use of the space. We think the public will be happy if we run a fiscally responsible museum and that is what the foundation board is trying to do."
McCullough attributed the bookstore's deficit to various problems associated with the museum's location rather than to anything related to Hendricks' management. Yet when Hendricks applied for the newly created position, she was turned down in favor of James Nelson, the 43-year-old former director-curator of the Yuma Art Center in Yuma, Ariz. A resident of Mission Viejo who moved to California last year, Nelson is scheduled to begin his new job in Long Beach this week.
"This revised position needs a person with entrepreneurial skills," said Garrett, who selected Nelson from among 53 applicants including Hendricks. "The candidate we've chosen is superior in that."
But Hendricks' supporters say the decision overlooked not only her years of faithful service, but the considerable contribution she has made to the museum's development and the need for a transitional manager familiar with the city's emerging arts community.
Before becoming bookstore manager 10 years ago, Hendricks served as publications manager and the museum's acting director from 1978 to 1979.
"She's been one of the primary forces behind the volunteer movement at the museum," Luther said. In addition to staging innovative exhibitions of such things as wine labels and luggage tags that have attracted numerous patrons, Luther said, Hendricks has designed and sold posters that have become internationally known, thus enhancing the museum's visibility worldwide.
By letting her go just months before reaching retirement age, critics say, the museum has treated Hendricks callously. And by letting her go at all, they say, it has violated promises made to the City Council three years ago that museum employees, who until 1985 worked directly for the city, would not be adversely affected by the changeover from municipal to private management.