Museum board eliminates director job to save money


July 2, 2020

Haines Sheldon Museum executive director Helen Alten was let go without warning Tuesday night after the board eliminated her position.

Board treasurer John Carlson said the decision was motivated by recent cuts to the Haines Borough’s portion of museum funding. Right before final passage of the borough budget in June, the assembly reduced funding for museum staffing to $150,000, down from $240,000 last year.

“Just looking at (Alten’s) salary and what else we could do with that money, we thought it would be in the best interest of the museum (to eliminate the position),” Carlson said.

Alten’s gross wages for the coming year would have been roughly $67,000. Including health care, other benefits and employer taxes, her position costs just over $100,000.

Carlson said the decision was difficult for board members.

“The director does a fabulous job and we really need a director, but we really can’t afford it,” he said. “This kind of decision makes you not want to be on a volunteer board.”

Carlson said the idea had been discussed at a board meeting roughly a month ago, but the real debate took place on Tuesday in an executive session.

The decision came as a surprise for Alten.

“They went into executive session and didn’t tell me what it was about. Then they called me back in and told me I was going to be let go and asked for my key,” Alten said in an interview Wednesday. “I think this was very hasty and not well thought out.”

Alten, who has more than 30 years of experience working for museums and cultural organizations in Alaska, the Lower 48 and overseas, has been the Sheldon Museum director for the past six years. She turned down a job offer at Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum to move to Haines.

At the time of her hiring, then museum board president Jim Heaton said, “To put it succinctly, we were lucky to have an applicant who was so overqualified willing to move to Haines for the job.”

Alten said by her calculations, the museum had enough between its borough funding and the roughly $96,000 she had raised in grants to cover staff salaries, including her position, through next June.

The $96,000 came from six distinct grants. The largest was a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded through the federal CARES Act. The Haines Sheldon Museum was one of six museums in Alaska selected to receive the funding.

Including wages and benefits, the annual cost of museum staff was $240,000. Between the grants and the borough’s $150,000, the museum would have had $16,000 left to put toward other operating costs.

Operating costs would have been tight and would have required additional fundraising, Alten said. Or, if pressed, the museum could have drawn from savings or its endowment to cover the additional costs.

Carlson said although Alten brought in a substantial amount through grants, the board was concerned about long-term funding prospects. Board members worried the museum would find itself in the same funding predicament next year, he explained.

Alten said she thinks the museum’s economic situation might look brighter next year if the damages of COVID-19 have lessened by then.

She said she thinks her firing could have been handled in a better way, potentially funding her through December to allow time for a transition. She worries about the continuation of projects including archive digitization and a traveling exhibit, and the museum’s upcoming reaccreditation without an executive director at the helm.

The job loss is also a personal blow for Alten.

“I’m the sole supporter of a family of four right now. I have two children, one going to trade school and the other in college,” Alten said. Her husband has a disability and the family relies on her job for health insurance, in addition to the income. Without the museum job, Alten said her family will likely move from Haines.

Right now, the museum’s future is uncertain. The facility had been scheduled to close for the month of July and reopen in August, but Carlson said the reopening may not happen on that schedule.

The board needs to meet again to discuss next steps, Carlson said. In the meantime, the board will take a more active role in management of the facility and the museum’s three remaining employees.

The board will release a formal statement on eliminating the executive director position in the coming days, president Kelleen Adams said in an email. Like Carlson, she cited the borough’s budget cuts as the reason behind the decision.

The museum has five board members including Carlson and Adams. The other members are secretary Lorrie Dudzik and new members Sue Chasen and Kim Chetney.


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