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Arkansas Arts Center's chief accepts N.C. job; exit comes as museum in Little Rock plans $70M face-lift

By Eric Besson

This article was originally published July 12, 2018 at 6:01 a.m. Updated July 12, 2018 at 11:03 a.m.

arts-center-executive-director-todd-herman-is-shown-in-this-2016-file-photo

Arts Center Executive Director Todd Herman is shown in this 2016 file photo.

Annegret Atkinson of Hot Springs interacts Wednesday with Pressure, by artist Dusty Mitchell, at the Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center in L...

Expansion and renovation plans for the Arkansas Arts Center include this covered walkway linking a new north-facing entrance at East Ninth Street and ...

Arkansas Arts Center Executive Director Todd Herman informed staff members Wednesday that he has accepted a job in North Carolina, creating a leadership vacancy at a pivotal moment for the downtown Little Rock museum.

Herman, 51, accepted a job as chief executive at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., just more than seven years after he arrived at the Arts Center from a South Carolina museum. His last day will be Aug. 10, said Merritt Dyke, president of the museum's board of trustees.

"It's as much a shock to us as it is to anybody," Dyke said during an interview Wednesday evening, calling the exit "a confluence of an opportunity for him professionally, as well as a family situation."

One of just three Arts Center directors in its 50 years, Herman's exit occurs as a behind-the-scenes fundraising campaign is underway to pay for the museum's $70 million makeover. Officials revealed the concept design in February, about two years after the public-private project was started.

Herman, who was not available for an interview, said in an emailed statement that he made the decision with a "heavy heart."

"As you know, you can't always plan when opportunities will find you," he said. "The opportunity to lead an institution and to be in close proximity to family in need was likely an opportunity I will never have again."

Laine Harber, the Arts Center's deputy director of operations and chief financial officer, will be the interim executive director, Dyke said. Harber previously filled in for Herman for roughly three months when Herman was on leave for medical reasons, Dyke said.

A search committee will form to find a longer-term replacement, but those details are still being worked out, Dyke said.

Herman gave Dyke his resignation letter midday Wednesday, the board president said.

Dyke said repeatedly there was no ill will between Herman and board members nor an event that influenced his decision to leave -- "there's no acrimony," he said. Herman said the same, adding that he "was not actively pursuing another job."

Leigh Dyer, a spokesman at The Mint, said the museum approached Herman about the job, rather than the other way around. The position had been filled on an interim basis after its former chief executive left more than a year ago.

Herman's replacement in Little Rock will inherit plans for the museum overhaul, including what will become of its programs during construction.

Aside from nationally recognized exhibitions and its extensive collection of drawings, the museum's core offerings include a school, a children's theater and statewide outreach programs.

Herman's seven-year run saw the museum find financial stability after earlier turmoil -- it never finished a year with a budget deficit during his tenure. He led efforts to raise money to repay debt and grow the Arts Center's endowment, officials said, and he steered the museum through reaccreditation last year.

Over the past two years, the museum drew tens of thousands of of visitors to exhibitions featuring works by Ansel Adams and John Marin, shows organized by curators Herman hired.

But Herman leaves with a key piece of his legacy unresolved -- the effort to remake the museum.

Herman, who repeatedly said his goal was for a "transformational" project, brought in two national firms headed by MacArthur "genius" grant recipients to devise new looks for the building and its landscape.

The project's total price would assuredly exceed the $70 million announced construction budget when including the need to grow its endowment and to cover so-called soft costs, such as contracts with architects and consultants, Herman has said. Officials have declined to publicly provide that estimate.

Up to $37.5 million in funding will come from public sources. Little Rock voters in February 2016 authorized public debt at that amount for improvements to the museum and the surrounding MacArthur Park. A 2 percentage-point tax increase to hotel stays will pay down the debt.

For months, officials have been talking to potential big-money donors as part of the "silent" solicitation phase. An appeal to the general public will follow, and more financial details will be made public at that time, Dyke said.

"We're close," Dyke said Wednesday.

Warren and Harriet Stephens, who are leading the fundraising effort, have contacted major donors and haven't reported any "issues with any kind of fundraising," Dyke said. Warren Stephens is chairman and chief executive of the investment firm Stephens Inc.

"The people that have given thus far are committed to the Arkansas Arts Center," Dyke said when asked what effect Herman's departure would have on fundraising. "They are committed to the project. I'm sad to see Todd leave, and I regret that he is leaving. That doesn't mean anybody's commitment to this institution is any less."

The scope and timeline of the expansion project aren't expected to change, Dyke said.

Construction has been scheduled to begin in fall 2019, with the redone museum being completed in 2022.

The city owns the Arts Center building and allocates $700,000 per year to the museum, which has more than 50 full-time employees and a projected 2019 budget of more than $7 million.

City directors also appoint members of the museum's 24-person board of trustees, which will be tasked with approving Herman's replacement.

Herman's salary at the Arts Center was roughly $210,000 per year, Dyke said.

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, a nonprofit, owns the museum's artwork and controls its endowment.

Herman will return to the East Coast to lead The Mint, founded in 1936 in an original branch of the U.S. Mint, where coins are made, becoming North Carolina's first arts museum. The Mint opened a second Charlotte facility in 2010.

"I was familiar with the [Mint] and its collection from my time in Columbia, South Carolina," said Herman, who was chief curator at the Columbia Museum of Art. "The strength of the institution, vibrant growth of the city, and close proximity to family is a combination that does [not] occur often in my field. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

The Mint announced in April 2017 that it would conduct a national search to replace its chief executive, Kathleen Jameson, who held the job for seven years. Jameson this summer accepted a job as executive director of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

Weston Andress, who chaired The Mint Museum's search committee, said in a news release that the museum "evaluated dozens of candidates and many strong finalists." Andress called Herman the "best possible choice."

Hillary Cooper, the museum's director of advancement and communications and a search committee member, said Herman will be a "wonderful leader."

"He brings the energy, expertise, and enthusiasm we need for the museum to reach its full potential," Cooper said in the release. "His caring nature, creative spirit, and passion for building relationships will resonate well with our community."

Herman's first day will be Aug. 20. He will oversee The Mint's $10.1 million operating budget and manage 54 full-time and 23 part-time employees, according to the release.

Dyke emphasized that, while Herman's departure is a shock, Little Rock's museum will move forward.

"All of the things he contributed to not just the Arts Center but the community at large, Central Arkansas and even the state, I don't know how to express this -- he's going to be missed," Dyke said. "But the other side, the side that I have to deal with, we have got to find a new director. ... We will endure."

A Section on 07/12/2018

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Asiseeit says... July 12, 2018 at 6:25 a.m.

A couple of clarifications needed in the article.

First, the Arts Center is over 50 years old. It officially opened its doors in May 1963, but was chartered by the City in 1960. That makes its age 58 years, not 50 as as the article states.

In those 58 years, there have actually been seven directors, not three. The first four were in fairly quick succession.

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