Wall of silence around DuSable Museum’s board departures a bad sign
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When seven board members and the CFO of a historic institution resign en masse, that spells trouble.
There’s just no other way to look at it.
But if you listen to what’s being said publicly about the extraordinary exodus of board members from the DuSable Museum of African-American History, you’d think it’s business as usual.
“Let me just say wonderful things are happening at the DuSable Museum of African-American History. … We are very happy to be looking at this really unique opportunity. DuSable is going to be just fine,” said Perri Irmer, the CEO of DuSable, during an exclusive interview with WVON’s Charles Thomas.
The segment aired on Tuesday morning.
How could losing that many board members and the chief financial officer, who had only been on the job for six weeks, be a unique opportunity?
That’s a hot mess.
But the people who have been in DuSable’s boardroom are keeping quiet about what’s behind that mess, either out of respect for the legacy of the museum’s founder, the late Margaret Burroughs, or because black folks won’t stand for their dirty laundry to be aired in front of white folks.
Frankly, the silence surrounding the exodus of board members at the DuSable speaks to the bigger problem facing the African-American community — that is disunity.
The departed trustees, for the most part, were people Irmer brought on the board.
“They had a falling out,” one source told me.
Several former DuSable insiders would only agree to speak about their grievances on background. One described the current atmosphere at the museum as being like “mean girls.”
Irmer was “out of the office” on Wednesday when I reached out to her for comments, but a spokesman forwarded the statement she put out when the resignations became public.
“We are grateful to all of our DuSable trustees, those remaining on the board and those who are departing, thank them for their dedication and service to this great institution, and have been assured of their continued support of the mission of DuSable Museum,” she said.
For whatever reason, the board members chose to leave at a time when all eyes are on the museum, as it is poised to reap benefits from its proximity to the planned Obama Presidential Center.
Irmer acknowledges there’s a money problem in that the nation’s “oldest independent black museum” has been “underfunded.”
“We need to attract trustees going forward who are really committed to raising funds,” she told WVON, adding that the issue is not “mismanagement or mismanagement of funds or the wrongful use of funds.”
“It is that there just aren’t enough. We don’t enjoy an endowment like many other institutions do. We don’t enjoy a surplus of operating funds. We don’t enjoy a budget that will allow us to repaint the museum every year and lay new carpet,” she said.
Her point is well-taken.
It was Carol Adams, the former CEO of DuSable, who chided me into a membership when I showed up to interview her for a story.
And she was right to do so.
What right do we have to be upset now about how things are going at the museum when we haven’t even bothered to give a donation?
Really, what right do we have to complain about sketchy exhibits, or to be outraged that the floors need scrubbing, or that the restrooms could use a thorough cleaning when we won’t cough up $40 for an individual membership or $60 for a family membership?
Worse yet, while DuSable has been cash-strapped, the lack of financial support has given it a great deal of autonomy.
That has allowed the museum to operate in virtual secrecy.
Imagine what would happen if eight board members and the CFO walked out of any one of the other prominent museums in this city.
There would be a citywide uproar.
The DuSable, however, can get away with talking points.
“All of the major funders of the DuSable Museum understand exactly what’s going on and that there’s no funny business going on. It’s just not enough money,” Irmer told WVON.
That may indeed be the case.
But the major funders of the DuSable need to be the people whose history is being celebrated.
Then when things go awry, they are definitely going to get answers.
Mary Mitchell and educator Leslie Baldacci are co-hosts of a podcast on race relations called “Zebra Sisters.” Check out the first season on iTunes and Google Play Music — or find individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ Zebra Sisters page. Email Mary and Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org or suggest topics for season two by calling the Zebra Hotline: (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).