Conflict on Display : Termination of Private Foundation’s Contract at Museum of Science and Industry Sparks Turmoil
With its lines of visiting children, campus-like layout and exhibits bearing such titles as “Wheels of Change” and “The Energy Experience,” the California Museum of Science and Industry gives off a deceptively tranquil air. In fact, it is an institution in turmoil.
For months, the museum has been embroiled in conflict. On one side are state officials who operate and oversee the facility, located in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park. On the other is the 33-year-old private foundation that has raised millions of dollars for the institution and has had a strong voice in how it is run.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 11, 1989
In a move that shocked and enraged the leadership of the California Museum Foundation, which includes some of the city’s most prominent businessmen, the state Legislature recently asserted its authority over the private organization. A bill was signed into law authorizing termination of the foundation’s contract with the museum, calling for a review of its relationship with the museum and banning the use of state funds to support the foundation’s operating costs.
The state has also ordered an audit by Oct. 1 to determine the extent to which public funds are being used for foundation business and whether the private organization is exaggerating its contributions to the museum.
A 1986 audit found that the private organization had improperly required donations from movie production companies in exchange for filming on state property.
Impassioned foundation leaders say the state is playing politics with the museum, thereby destroying a previously harmonious private-public partnership and scaring off potential contributors. These trustees, some of whom have been active in the foundation for decades, charge that the state is jeopardizing the museum’s future through nit-picking and hiring based on patronage.
“They (state officials) are not thinking of the people of California,” said Carolyn Ahmanson, whose late husband helped established the museum support group. “They have paralyzed the foundation.”
But Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees the museum, said the legislation is the result of years of dissatisfaction with the way the science institution is managed.
“I’m not for getting rid of the foundation,” she said, “but the foundation should know that it does not have a permanent home where it can do anything it wants to do.”
The current 23-member foundation executive committee includes Fred Llewellyn, 72, chairman of Forest Lawn Co.; Fred L. Hartley, 72, retired chairman of Unocal Corp.; Howard Edgerton, 66, retired chairman of California Savings & Loan; Ernest L. Loebbecke, 78, retired chairman of Ticor, and Morgan L. Harris Jr., 88, managing partner of Korn/Ferry International.
Among the 63 other trustees is David Laventhol, 56, president of Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.
The showdown between the state and the foundation was triggered by a dispute over who should select a permanent successor to Don M. Muchmore, the museum’s controversial former executive director. Muchmore, 66, who ran the museum and the foundation simultaneously for six years until he officially gave up his museum duties in June, 1988, had remained executive vice president of the private group.
It was a second tour of duty for Muchmore, who first joined the museum in 1957, not long after a group of influential local businessmen took it upon themselves to change the emphasis of the museum, founded in 1912, from agriculture to science and industry.
Muchmore has been lauded for his fund-raising efforts and prodigious energy. Under his stewardship, the museum was greatly enlarged, an Aerospace Hall and an economics arcade were added and displays on mathematics and science were updated, making it possible for children to interact with the teaching devices.
But Muchmore, a former executive with California Federal Savings & Loan, has antagonized legislators and subordinates with a style that many view as imperious. Critics say he has made too many unilateral decisions for an institution that received $7.4 million in state funding last year and is slated to get the same amount this year.
The 1986 state audit also found that Muchmore was overestimating museum attendance, which cannot be measured precisely since there is no entrance fee. (Today, museum officials hazard a rough calculation of 3 million visitors a year.)
“He (Muchmore) expands on his own importance, and he expands on his fund-raising capabilities all the time,” Waters said.
Muchmore, who stepped down from the foundation last week, recently told a reporter that the foundation had raised $6.4 million last year, an amount approaching the state subsidy. But in its last report filed with the state attorney general’s office, the foundation listed revenues of only $4.1 million.
Confronted with the discrepancy, Muchmore said he was including the value of exhibits loaned to the museum by corporate donors. But, such loans “cannot be included as revenue,” countered Sam Williamson, deputy registrar for the state Registry of Charitable Trusts.
Muchmore also takes credit for raising $41 million within 18 months in order to expand the museum in time for the 1984 Olympic Games. But museum officials say there is no way of verifying that claim. His figures, they point out, include state-supported projects and a bank loan to build the IMAX theater.
To replace Muchmore, foundation trustees wanted to launch a national search for “a superstar, somebody with such prestige that he could take the museum into a kind of quantum leap forward,” said Marvin L. Holen, chairman of the foundation’s executive committee.
The ideal candidate, Holen said, would be a former president of a major research institution who could compete for private funds with such distinguished museum directors as Earl A. Powell of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The foundation was prepared to guarantee a six-figure salary, considerably more than the $84,000 salary the current director receives, according to Holen.
The nine-member museum board, which is appointed by the governor, eventually agreed to a search. But the plan was foiled, foundation trustees said, when they discovered to their dismay that there was no non-Civil Service position available to fill the opening. The new director would have to take a Civil Service exam--a requirement that would drive away high-profile candidates, Holen said.
Linked to Governor
Instead, the sole non-Civil Service position had gone to Sue Glad, a former scheduling secretary for Gov. George Deukmejian, who was hired as a deputy director for public relations and legislative lobbying.
Describing her selection as “patronage,” Joseph R. Cerrell, a foundation trustee and public relations executive, said, “They had to find a job for her in Southern California.”
The appointment of Glad made it inevitable that the executive director’s position would go to Jeffrey N. Rudolph, Muchmore’s former deputy, trustees said. A seven-year employee of the museum, Rudolph, 34, has Civil Service status.
Rudolph was indeed named to the executive director’s post on June 29. “The state board was very satisfied with the way Rudolph has been running the museum,” said Fred L. Riedman, president of the museum board and a former law partner of Deukmejian’s.
Rudolph in turn defends the decision to hire Glad, citing her experience on the governor’s staff and in public relations and her master’s degree in zoology.
Several foundation trustees expressed doubt that Rudolph, given his youth and background in the state bureaucracy, will be a strong fund-raiser--a concern echoed by Michael Bagdassarian, one of three dissident members of the appointed state board. “Time will tell . . . if he has the ability to move in the circles you need to move in to get corporate contributions,” he said.
To the foundation leadership, the Rudolph and Glad appointments and the subsequent legislative action were an act of betrayal. They point out that the foundation raised funds for half of the museum’s buildings and for nearly all the exhibits, most of which were donated by corporations with close ties to the fund-raising group.
In addition, the foundation pays the salaries of two of the museum’s six curators and its education director. Muchmore also said the private group subsidizes all of the institution’s educational programs, although Rudolph said these classes break even because of enrollment fees.
Given this level of support, the foundation should be an equal partner, Muchmore argued. “The (state’s) intent is to create a master-slave relationship,” he said. “They want the foundation to be the slave.”
Private-public partnerships are not uncommon in the museum world, and it is customary for the private side to select the museum director, according to Ed Able, executive director of the 2,300-member American Assn. of Museums. “Selection of a director should be free of any government interference,” he said.
But under the Science and Industry contract, state officials said, the foundation is supposed to have only an advisory role in personnel matters. To reinforce that point, the recently enacted legislation specifies that the museum board “shall maintain sole discretion and authority regarding the selection and appointment of museum staff.”
Armed with the new law, the state board last week gave notice that its current contract with the foundation will be terminated within six months. The new law limits any future agreements with the private group to three years instead of 10.
Waters said the legislation will enable the state to conduct a long overdue review of the museum. She criticized the large Mitsubishi signs on the IMAX theater (for which the company contributed $625,000) and the arrangement under which the Mark Taper Hall of Economics and Finance will eventually be turned over to USC.
In addition, Waters questioned the foundation’s contract with the McDonald’s restaurant that operates on museum grounds. The fast-food outlet, which houses a display touting the “nutritional value” of fast food, did $921,000 in business during the nine-month period ending June 20, state figures show.
Yet last year, the museum got only $71,000 from the restaurant, according to Muchmore. Defending the disparity, Muchmore said the restaurant spent $2.4 million improving the surrounding area when it opened five years ago.
Without Close Scrutiny
Waters said she believes that Muchmore has been able to operate over the years without close scrutiny from the trustees.
“Maybe they don’t ask enough questions,” she said.
“I don’t control the foundation,” Muchmore protested. “Have you ever heard of anybody in a job like this running 86 prominent businessmen?”
Riedman said one of his key concerns is the foundation’s use of state funds to pay for such expenses as utilities, postage and printing. In addition, a Muchmore secretary is on the state payroll.
But Muchmore and trustees defend these expenditures, saying that the foundation exists only to benefit the museum. “It’s nit-picking,” said trustee JoAnne Jordan, a museum volunteer for the last 20 years. “In my mind (the museum and the foundation) should be one entity.”
Denying that the state is being petty, Porter Meroney, undersecretary of state and consumer services, said the California Constitution prohibits the gift of public funds to a private operation.
For Ahmanson and others, the current rift carries an ominous message for all museums that depend on private support.
“In business parlance, there is a thing called a takeover. (This) is a takeover of the private sector of a public-private partnership,” Ahmanson said. “It’s very detrimental to the whole scene of public-private relationships.”
But for foundation trustee Janis Berman it is a signal that the entrenched leadership of the private organization needs to make room for younger people who more closely represent the city’s changing demographics.
“You don’t give reins of power permanently to a group of people if it’s a public institution,” said Berman, a former museum board president.
But Riedman said foundation trustees are overreacting to what he calls “a blip in a long-term relationship.” He expressed confidence that the contract with the foundation will be renewed after the problems are ironed out.
“I know of no one who wants the foundation to leave,” Riedman said.