Cover Story

Museum Meltdown

by R. Reese Fuller

A contentious disagreement over an art exhibit leads to longtime director Herman Mhire's retirement and questions about the future of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum.

On Friday, Aug. 26, while Katrina was still in the Gulf of Mexico, there was another storm brewing at the University Art Museum. Eleven people were gathered in the museum's conference room to discuss the presentation of the upcoming exhibit Magnificent, Marvelous Martelé: American Art Nouveau Silver, The Jolie and Robert Shelton Collection.

Representatives from the university included Herman Mhire, the museum's director; Mark Tullos, the museum's deputy director; Joyce Penn, the museum's registrar; and Dr. Steve Landry, vice president of academic affairs for UL Lafayette and chairman of the museum's governing board. There were three members of the UL Foundation board present ' Rusty Cloutier, president of MidSouth Bank; Robert Tujaque, senior vice president of IberiaBank; and C.J. Stelly, vice president of investments for Salomon Smith Barney. Also present were Kay Doré, president of the Curators Circle, a nonprofit community organization that raises funds for the museum's exhibitions; John Keefe, curator of decorative arts for the New Orleans Museum of Art; and Robert and Jolie Shelton.

Robert Shelton, a local attorney, and his wife, Jolie, began collecting Martelé silver in 1995. They have since amassed what's considered to be the largest private collection of the early 20th century handcrafted American silver.

On the day of the meeting, the scheduled opening of the exhibit was only three weeks away. The Sheltons had requested the meeting to discuss the presentation of the exhibit and their dissatisfaction with Mhire's handling of it.

Robert Shelton opened the two-hour meeting with a lengthy history of Martelé silver. He then listed items that needed to be added to the exhibit and asked Mhire what he intended to do to rectify the situation.

Mhire responded by circulating a copy of the contract between the museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art, the exhibit's original curator, stating that he believed that the additions to the exhibit would violate the contract. Shelton said the contract was meaningless.

Mhire offered what he thought was a compromise to the Sheltons' concerns that wouldn't violate the contract. "Mr. Shelton refused it," Doré says.

Mhire offered to step away from the project and allow the Sheltons to do as they wished with the exhibit. Landry seconded the opinion. Doré recalls, "Mr. Shelton rose from his chair somewhat and said, 'You're not going to be able to wash your hands like Pontius Pilate.'" The meeting ended without resolution.

Four days later, UL President Ray Authement placed Mhire on administrative leave. In turn, Mhire announced his retirement from the university.

The meltdown over the silver exhibit isn't an isolated incident, and it's indicative of deeper problems that have plagued the museum from its inception. It raises questions about the governance and management of the museum, its direction and the role a new director might play. It also leads to unanswered questions about the outstanding debt on the $8.5 million facility and the museum's ability to generate funding for exhibitions.

Nov. 30 is Herman Mhire's last day with the university. Since 1976, he's been a full-time art professor, with 17 of those years as the director of the University Art Museum.

For Mhire, a product of Lafayette's public schools and its university, art has been his window into other worlds. "My world was Lafayette," Mhire says, "and it didn't go any further than that. I learned about these other places through books and by studying art history and learning about other cultures in Europe, southeast Asia, Africa and so on. But these were all very distant places that I never thought I would experience in my lifetime. So in my work with the museum, I organized exhibitions of works of art that represented other cultures."

In April 2004, the fruit of Mhire's lifelong labor culminated in the opening of the 33,000-square-foot Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. But the seeds for the museum were planted in 1968, when local businessman Maurice Heymann donated three acres of land and $25,000 to the university to build an art museum to house its permanent collection. The original building on the corner of St. Mary Boulevard and Girard Park Drive was nicknamed "the Pink Palace" and later "the White Elephant" for architect A. Hays Town's mandated color scheme.

In 1983, Mhire became the director of the facility. Twelve years later, in 1995, Mhire says a patron, whom he would not identify, stepped forward with "a seven figure amount" toward a new building for the museum.

"I had a vision based on the need I saw in Lafayette to have a real professional art museum," Mhire says, "and I worked toward that goal for 12 years." But Mhire says the university passed on the offer. "That's when I realized that after 12 years, the dream I had would probably not be realized. I fully respect the university. The university administration has to make decisions about what the priorities are. It was just clear to me that this was not a priority, and I was exhausted. I was teaching and running the museum with a secretary and a few student aides."

Mhire resigned as director but stayed on as a professor.

Three directors and five years later, the museum was again without a leader. In 2000, despite his earlier misgivings about the direction of the museum, Mhire was reinstated as the director of the University Art Museum.

Prior to Mhire's return, Acadiana Arts Council Director Buddy Palmer says there were some discussions between AAC and the university for a joint art museum project for Lafayette, but the university decided against the partnership. In July 2000, the downtown LBA bank building on the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion streets went up for sale, and the arts council partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create the Acadiana Center for the Arts.

By year's end, a design selection committee was in place, with Mhire on board. He championed the New Orleans firm of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple for the job. During one meeting to select the facility's architect, Mhire became upset and walked out of the meeting. Local architect Steve Oubre, who was also a member of DDA, was present at that meeting. "Evidently," Oubre says, "he was very upset that his selected firm was not in the front running."

Mhire explains: "I felt that my comments were either being ignored or just being dismissed. I felt like this was a railroading kind of situation where a decision had been made ' it was going to be this firm. I felt like there was very little purpose in my being there. I'm really not a participant in this discussion anymore, and my opinions mean nothing because someone has already decided who's going to be selected, so there was no point in me staying any longer."

Mhire acknowledges that he has a reputation in some circles as being difficult to work with. "I'm difficult because sometimes I go against the status quo," he says. "I go against the current. I propose something that is out of the accepted context. This is not ego speaking. I'm trying to bring a level of experience that is apart from what people have had in the past."

Soon after Mhire's abrupt departure from the ACA project, Oubre recalls the new University Art Museum was announced. "It happened very, very quickly," he says. "It was almost immediate it seemed." (Eskew+Dumez+Ripple was later hired to design the University Art Museum, as well as the Acadiana Center for the Arts.)

In March 2001, two weeks before a scheduled trip to Paris to try and secure paintings for a proposed exhibit, Mhire received a call from Lulu Hilliard, inviting him to her home to see if some paintings she and her husband, Paul, had purchased in India might be made part of the museum's permanent art collection. Paul Hilliard, president of Badger Oil, recalls, "After we had discussed every subject on the face of the globe, including the creation of the world and subsequent events, we said, 'Herman, is there anything we can do to help feed your vision for Lafayette and a museum?' He said, 'Yeah, I need a museum to hang all of this stuff in.'" The Hilliards first pledged $3 million for the construction of a new museum, but later increased that pledge to $5 million.

"Herman got us involved in that thing," Hilliard says. "We thought he wasn't just talented and experienced, but a visionary, which I'm not. We had every bit of confidence ' total confidence ' that he could do something with it if he got a museum facility. I think he showed that he could do it with the rather nice exhibits there."

On the afternoon of July 8, 2005, Mhire says he was in a meeting in the conference room of the University Art Museum when he saw the museum's deputy director, Mark Tullos, escort Robert and Jolie Shelton and NOMA's John Keefe into Mhire's office.

Mhire had hired Tullos in April 2003. With 19 years of experience directing museums, Tullos was the first director of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Oceans Springs, Miss., and was with the Alexandria Museum of Art for eight years, where he oversaw a $5.8 million expansion.

Mhire excused himself from the meeting in the conference room and entered his office.

Mhire says inside his office, he found Tullos showing the Sheltons a scale model Mhire had developed of the gallery depicting the upcoming silver exhibit. He says Robert Shelton indicated some changes needed to be made. (Robert Shelton did not return calls for comment by press time.)

Tullos declines to discuss specifics of the meeting. "That meeting had a lot more to do with aesthetics than anything," he says. "The decision to move forward with the exhibition was based on the desire of [Keefe] and the knowledge base of the [Sheltons], who happen to be significant donors to the university and the art museum. I really don't want to get involved with that, with Herman's role. I mean, I've known Robert Shelton for 20 years." Tullos says he first met the Sheltons at the Alexandria Museum of Art. "There are a few people in your life that you meet and you make quick friendships with, and we did that day." Tullos is still close to the Sheltons; he rents his Lafayette residence from the couple.

One thing is clear about the meeting: strong philosophical differences on the exhibit's presentation began to emerge. "[Shelton] proceeds to tell me about things that he wants to add which are not described in the contract with the New Orleans Museum of Art," Mhire says. Shelton informed him that he would be bringing dinnerware and flatware to set a dining room table, along with a chandelier that would need to be suspended from the 20-foot ceilings; he also wanted the movable walls of the gallery painted a darker color and requested motorized turntables to rotate some of the silver pieces. Mhire contends that the addition of the items would have violated the terms of the agreement ' particularly the clause "no objects may be added to exhibition or displayed in the same gallery" ' between the University Art Museum and NOMA, which had originally organized the exhibit.

The same day, Mhire accompanied the Sheltons to their home to see how the dining room silver was arranged and had lunch with them at Café Vermilionville. Shelton informed Mhire that he planned on hiring Keefe as a consultant for the exhibit. "It showed very little respect for me and my ability to present that collection, in a way that would do justice to those objects," Mhire says. "I was fully capable of doing that. I have been doing this for a number of years, so it was totally unnecessary to have Mr. Keefe involved in our presentation." Keefe is the curator of the Shelton's collection and co-authored a book about it. Mhire adds that before this meeting, there had been no communication with the Sheltons concerning the exhibit, although the contract for it had been signed in November 2002.

After giving it some thought, Mhire says he contacted Keefe a few days later and informed him that his services wouldn't be needed, and according to the terms of the contract, neither would the Sheltons. The Sheltons weren't happy. In an eight-page letter, dated Aug. 8 and addressed to Mhire, the Sheltons wrote: "On July 8, 2005 your cooperation and agreement to the foregoing was enthusiastically given along with your pledge to cooperate fully with John W. Keefe for the Hilliard Museum Exhibition Presentation." The letter adds, "Jolie and I are disappointed in you, as Director of the museum, for your failure to extend the courtesy of communicating with us on your changed decision and particularly with your rejection of our efforts to assist in the upcoming exhibition."

In a letter dated the same day, Authement wrote to Mhire, "As University President, I ask that you accept [Keefe's] offer of assistance and permit Mr. Keefe access to our museum to help create an outstanding exhibit and honor the Shelton's [sic] wishes. The Shelton's [sic] must be recognized in Acadiana for their outstanding collection and support for UL Lafayette."

Mhire responded to Authement on Aug. 15: "It has always been our intent to present this collection in the most professional manner, and in accordance with our contract with the New Orleans Museum of Art and accepted standards of professional museum practice." He then arranged a meeting in New Orleans to discuss the exhibit with Keefe and UAM registrar Joyce Penn for Friday, Aug. 26, just three weeks before the proposed opening of the exhibit.

The Sheltons learned of the NOMA meeting, saw it as another affront to their efforts and wrote again to Authement Aug. 23. "The response of Museum Director Mhire to your directive portends of subservience with an undertone of defiance evidencing an unwillingness to genuinely cooperate in the presentation of the Martelé Silver Exhibit," they wrote. The Sheltons also stated there was no reason to have the meeting in New Orleans since the exhibition would be held in Lafayette. "In accord with our discussion concerning the cancellation of this meeting in New Orleans, and with your approval, I requested and you approved that we would convene a meeting at the Hillard [sic] Museum of Art ... "

By all accounts, the rescheduled Aug. 26 meeting was highly combative. Mhire says when he realized that he could not assuage Robert Shelton's concerns, he offered to step away from the project. "It was clear that Mr. Shelton was not interested in my approach to presenting the collection," Mhire says. "I said to Mr. and Mrs. Shelton and Mr. Keefe, 'With the permission of the university and the foundation, you can do whatever you would like in Gallery A. You can paint the walls purple as far as I'm concerned. My only request is that you return the space to the condition in which you found it.'" Landry endorsed Mhire's recommendation, but no action was taken.

The meeting adjourned without resolving any of the disputed issues. The Sheltons wrote another letter to Authement the next day, claiming that Mhire's move to withdraw from the exhibit "was an obvious attempt to shirk his Director's duty to present this Silver Exhibit properly." That weekend, while Hurricane Katrina was building steam in the Gulf of Mexico, Mhire sent two detailed e-mails to Authement outlining budget, aesthetic, safety and contractual concerns with the Sheltons' requests.

That Monday, the university was closed due to the hurricane. On Aug. 31, Mhire received a certified letter from Authement placing him on administrative leave for three months. "I ask that you stay away from the museum during that leave period," the letter read. "You will continue your duties in the College of the Arts." On Sept. 8, Mhire announced his retirement, effective Nov. 30, in a letter to Brian Kelly, head of the department of visual arts. On Oct. 4, Authement accepted his decision to retire.

Long before the Sheltons and their silver exhibit entered the picture, Mhire and Authement's relationship was already strained.

The rift began before the museum even opened. Authement says the problems started with the opening exhibition of French paintings, which was scheduled in October 2003. While the museum's humidity control system was officially cited as the reason for the opening exhibit's delay and ultimate cancellation, Authement now says money was also a serious issue. "[Mhire] had projected a large expenditure that would have landed the university in some serious financial problems," Authement says. "He was late in disclosing some issues that had budget impact, and I think things got a little out of hand."

Landry says the price tag for the opening exhibit would have been more than $900,000 ' and that didn't include additional insurance required to safeguard the art. Mhire says that he wasn't allowed to seek private sponsorship for the exhibition and that the university did not fulfill a pledge to secure national corporate sponsorship for it.

Authement contends that he asked Mhire to give him five reasons why the exhibit should go on as planned. He says, "Before I was able to respond or get with him to discuss this, [Mhire] had gone into the community and created a negative atmosphere that was very contentious and very disturbing to me." Authement then ordered Tullos to write letters to the French museums that were lending paintings for the exhibit, informing them that the exhibit had been cancelled. Mhire was informed of the cancellation the day after the letters were sent.

Mhire says there never has been a clear chain of command in place for managing the museum and claims the governing board that oversees it is ineffective. The governing board is still not operating with required bylaws, although they were drafted more than a year ago. (Authement and foundation President Jim Prince haven't signed them.) According to a draft of those bylaws, the board has the "sole responsibility and authority for the operation and maintenance of the Art Museum," including the selection of the curator and staff. Landry says that while the governing board is following the proposed bylaws, it did not vote on whether to place Mhire on administrative leave.

It wasn't just the board that concerned Mhire. Disappointed with Mark Tullos' performance, particularly in grant writing and fundraising, Mhire recommended in October 2004 that Authement terminate Tullos. The administration did not heed the request. "The university began to rely on Mark Tullos more and more for budgets and financial guidance in the operations," says Authement. Tullos says his involvement with the museum's capital campaign has led to raising over $900,000, in addition to the $49,000 he's secured through grants.

"One of the conflicts I had," Authement says, "was that when you commit to a budget, you commit the university to a certain performance in terms of financing and management. [Mhire] didn't understand that." Authement says for the recent Robert Rauschenberg exhibit, the university lent the museum $100,000, but that Mhire went over budget by an additional $20,000.

Poor communication and misunderstandings also extended to funding the museum's exhibitions. Mhire cites the re-appropriation of student assessment fees as an example. When the museum opened, students voted to increase their semester fees to $5 to support the operation of the museum. Mhire was under the impression that the funds would be applied to costs of exhibitions, as it had been done in the past. Instead, that annual $140,000 was applied to paying the utilities for the building, leaving the museum without a budget for exhibitions.

"We want to make sure that all of the debt on the museum is cleared," Authement says. "Then we can move to funding larger exhibits. That's a point that Herman and I didn't agree on. We believe that if we can take care of the debt, then the money that would go to interest and bond payments could be transferred to exhibits." The foundation has received pledges for $6.5 million to pay for the building, but has only collected $2.5 million to date. Citing donor confidentiality, the university will not disclose whether monies collected include the Hilliards' lead gift.

Hilliard says he has had little communication with the university administration. "There hasn't been much interchange of ideas or concerns or advice between the university, the foundation and the donors, as far as I can determine. It certainly hasn't been in our case.

"I would hope that this will all work out," he adds. "Our [$3 million] was a minimum pledge. We had hoped to do more than that. But I think our minimum pledge became a maximum with the loss of Herman. He was the guy with the energy and the ambition and the knowledge and the talent and the vision. So right now, we're out all of those things. Talent, experience and vision are in short supply right now."

Mhire contends that the current hierarchy, as set forth in the museum's bylaws, will make it difficult for the museum to get accreditation from the American Association of Museums, which is essential to attracting large exhibitions that will draw local visitors and tourists. Both Authement and Landry say accreditation is a long-term goal for the museum, and Landry says a strategic planning committee was recently formed to consider the issue as part of the museum's long-term plan. With the current hiring freeze at state universities, the administration is not searching for a new museum director and it has no acting director, leaving only Tullos as deputy director.

"We have sort of a muddled and not completely clear situation, in terms of the relationship with the museum and the administration," says Elemore Morgan Jr. Before retiring in 1998, Morgan taught art at the university for 32 years. Today, he's a member of the Curators Circle. "We should try to pull together and institute a nationwide search for the very best director we can find. But anybody worth his salt and worth the money they're going to pay them will not want to come into a muddled situation like this ' not having clear cut guidelines."

"I want [the museum] to be accredited," Authement says. "I want a first class curator in there. I certainly want to bring harmony in the community between the art community and the museum itself. We've worked very hard to get this. My fingerprints are all over that museum, so if I leave a legacy, I don't want it to be one that is negative."

Despite the circumstances under which he left the university, Mhire still has high hopes for the museum. "I don't want that museum to fail," he says. "The question needs to be asked: Is it worth saving? And if so, we need to figure out another way to make it right. The community support for the museum is gone. I want this to work, but things will have to change to make that happen."