Comings & Goings | Public Issues

Lynnette Hiskey Leaves Utah Division of Arts & Museums

Lynnette Hiskey

Lynnette Hiskey

On Monday, Lynnette Hiskey stepped down as Director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums after two years in the position. She previously had served as the department’s assistant director and was promoted to the new position after Margaret Hunt resigned in 2013.

Hiskey’s departure was sudden and unannounced.

When the Department of Heritage & Arts was contacted, Communications Director Geoff Fattah responded with the following statement: “Lynnette Hiskey resigned as director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums on Monday, August 3, 2015.  Lynnette was a dedicated advocate for arts and museums in Utah and can point to many successes during her time as assistant director and director of the division.  The Utah Department of Heritage & Arts will be commencing a nationwide search for a new director of the Division of Arts & Museums in the coming weeks.”

Reached at her home Thursday, Hiskey said that during a performance review on Monday she was told, “It’s just not working.” When she asked why, Department of Heritage & Arts Executive Director Julie Fisher simply responded, “We’re going to go in a different direction.”

Hiskey’s was an “at will” position, in which terms for dismissal are not required for termination. During the review, a Human Resources representative told Hiskey she had the option to resign or be terminated.

Tom Alder, who sits on the board of the Division of Arts & Museum’s Utah Arts Council, said he was “surprised.” “I’ve always liked working with Lynnette and her staff and thought she did a great job. I’m saddened that she’s leaving.”

When contacted for comment, individual staff members at the Division of Arts & Museums replied with the Department of Heritage & Arts’ official statement. But former staff member Wendi Hassan, who left earlier this year to become executive director at the Cache Valley Center for the Arts, said there have been ongoing tensions between the division’s staff — professionals trained in their fields — and the politically-appointed managers who run the larger Department of Heritage & Arts (Director Julie Fisher was previously a four-term state legislator; Deputy Director Brian Somers was previously a speech writer for Gov. Gary Herbert and a congressional staffer). “There’s a total disregard by management for the qualifications of these people doing their jobs [at the Division of Arts & Museums], and for the constituency they are supposed to be serving,” said Hassan.

John T. Nielsen, a former member of the Arts Council Board, called Hiskey a “valuable and loyal employee” and said her “forced departure” was a “tremendous loss to the entire arts community of the state.”

“Unfortunately, the arts and politics sometimes don’t mix well,” he said via e-mail. “I believe Lynnette was a casualty of that divergence. There has been tension for over a year regarding Lynnette’s defense of her staff, views of artistic expression, and funding issues that have often clashed with the views of her superiors at the Department.”

Hiskey said that while she felt she had a great relationship with her staff, she may not have been appreciated by her bosses. “I will speak up and voice my opinion and they’re not happy with that.”

Hiskey said it seemed in several instances the Department of Heritage & Arts was more interested in giving money back to the Legislature than in spending it on their mission. She also experienced micromanagement to an extent she’s never before seen in her professional career. “You’re beating your head against a brick wall just to get one small thing approved.”

Issues may have come to a head during the most recent legislative session. With the help of a lobbying grant from Western States Art Federation (WESTAF), Hiskey said she was attempting to secure $200,000 from the State Legislature to provide much needed shelving for the state’s fine art collection. Since those funds were not part of the governor’s budget, her superiors asked her to pull the request. Which she did. Legislators decided to go forward with the appropriation nonetheless. In response to the incident, Hiskey received what she described as a “really nasty letter of reprimand.”

Hiskey’s departure comes at a time when the Division appears to be doing quite well. “We’ve never been more successful than in the last year,” Hiskey said. The division was able to reinstate a Museums staff position and a Folk Arts manager, and created a marketing and branding position that has been instrumental in giving the department a unified look. At the most recent Mountain West Arts Conference, hosted by Hiskey’s department, NEA Chairman Jane Chu was the keynote speaker; and in October the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies’ Leadership Institute is coming to Salt Lake City for their annual conference. “Other states are coming to see what we’ve been able to do,” Hiskey said.


(Director Julie Fisher and Deputy Director Brian Somers of the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts both declined to be interviewed for this article.)

CORRECTIONS: We originally stated that John T. Nielsen was a current member of the Utah Arts Council Board. Nielsen’s term expired in July.

We received the following from Julie Fisher, via Geoff Fattah, shortly after going to press:
“Our staff at the Division of Arts & Museums are talented and dedicated professionals, and we look forward to working collaboratively with them, and with a new director, as we move forward.  The public programs and services that our staff provide are critical to the arts and museum communities in Utah, and the Department of Heritage & Arts is committed to ensuring that our staff have the resources and support they need as they continue finding new and innovative ways to serve their customers.”

15 replies »

  1. I am deeply concerned that the timing of this decision by the Department of Heritage and Arts will shift the conversation at three national arts conferences to be held in Utah this year from the amazing arts scene in Utah and our history as the first state arts council in the nation to a gossip and speculation. Bad timing folks!

  2. What a shame. Lynnette was a tremendous asset to the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. It’s truly unfortunate that she had to step down – this is a huge loss for the Utah arts community. It’s a shame that politics take precedence over job performance.

  3. This tragedy shows clearly why we need a civil service to look after such fragile, vital responsibilities as encouraging, promoting, collecting, archiving, and caring for cultural artifacts. Art should not be a football of political whims, nor should irreplaceable objects be put in jeopardy due to clumsy efforts at currying favor with extreme fads, like the current craze for starving government of, by, and for the people in order to feed the already wealthy. An artwork or art project lost now can never be recovered, and someone should have both the judgment and the power to sustain these things through bad times. The Utah Division of Arts and Museums is the heir to numerous organizations that shared the trust of the population over decades. Their programs and exhibitions are as superb as they are indispensable. For this generation to fumble the legacy of Utah’s rich artistic heritage after all these years would be a catastrophe. Politicians should get out and stay out, and let the talented professionals do the job they were trained and hired to do.

  4. As a member of the arts community in Utah, I am saddened and disturbed by Lynnette’s sudden and forced departure. I have been impressed with all the Division of Arts and Museums has accomplished, and not more so than in the past two-three years. This is bad timing to say the least, but given all that has been accomplished under Lynnette’s leadership for the community of artists and administrators in Utah, and also in terms of bringing national attention to our very deserving state, it is simply a very bad decision, period.

  5. As one of Lynnette’s colleagues I witnessed first hand her exceptional management skills and cautious stewardship of public resources. This firing is not a reflection on Lynnette but on those that fired her. They have instituted and are perpetuating a hostile work environment for employees and directors.
    Julie Fisher’s opening remarks to employees of the Department immediately after she was appointed are a reflection of her thought process: “As a legislator, I want you to know we think you are all very lucky to have a job.” Utahns deserve better.

  6. Very sad and disturbing that political wills can upend a department of our State government, that was growing and thriving, inspite of the shocking lack of support from this administration. I was asked to leave the Utah Art Council by the same powers, and for the same reasons. The current administration has no real concern, passion or care for the arts in Utah. They fail miserably at protecting and promoting the arts and artists of Utah….a legacy that has been an intregal part of our heritage. The current administration also continues to appoint unqualified individuals to oversee the Division of Arts and Museums. To her credit, Lynnette tried to cooperate and move the department forward under stifling conditions. This is a sad state of affairs for the arts in Utah! Simply put….Utah cannot be a great place to live, raise families, work and recreate, without support for the arts!

  7. Once again politics interferes with the functioning of a department that plays an important role in creating the diverse city that we live in. We are so fortunate to live in a place that has such a variety of artistic and human experiences. What a tragedy for those of us who enjoy and contribute to this great cause. Once again Utah legislators at work!

  8. This is a great blow to arts and culture in the beautiful state of Utah. The arts and cultural heritage of Utah truly make our state extraordinary. Many times work and dedication is misunderstood because of passion for arts by employees that will go above and beyond the call of duty to truly make a difference in arts organizations, in communities, and in the world. It is unfortunate that this ailment is in our state arts agency combined with political agendas. We must work diligently to heal this and move forward for the good of the people in Utah and nationally looking to our good work. Lynnette Hiskey will be missed by our statewide arts community and the people of Utah because of her great leadership as an educator of the value of the arts and for her passion for arts and culture.

  9. I whole heartedly agree with the comments being made. With all of Julie Fisher’s incompetent actions, the biggest one has to be in letting Lynnette go. This is a huge black mark on Gov. Herbert’s record as it shows an excessive lack of gudgemrnt on his part in even allowing that woman to be involved in the arts and museums programs. She and her deputy director are so grossly unqualified and grossly overpaid. Lynnette cared deeply for her program, she went to bat for her employees and the programs that were entrusted to her. This is a huge loss to the arts program as well as the state of Utah. If Julie fisher really wanted to save the state money, she should consider saving us the cost of her salary in the place for someone that actually knows what they are doing and are able to lead in an effective manner.

  10. I am concerned that the Department of Heritage & Arts has no requirement to answer to the public who funds it about their actions. If anything, I think this needs to change.

  11. I Tweeted Geoff Fattah to get some answers. Everyone should do this @GeoffHeritage We need to know who is controlling our public arts money.

  12. Sounds familiar. I wonder if Ms. Fisher was grinning like the Chesire Cat when she fired (accepted HR-prepared letter of resignation) Lynnette (who I hired as assistant director of the Utah Arts Council because of her excellent qualifications) as did Jason Chaffetz when he announced Gov. Huntsman’s firing (acceptance of HR-prepared letters of resignation) of me as Council Director and 32 other department colleagues.

  13. from the SL Trib
    “Another dispute arose when department administrators turned over more than half a million dorllars to the state general fund without consulting Hiskey and division staff. The money had been saved like a rainy day arts conservation fund, as mandated by the Utah Percent-for-Art Act.”

    Why is Ms Fisher giving money away from her own division? This seems like the central issue from the community’s POV. Why would anyone reduce the money over which she has control? This raises disturbing questions not addressed here or in the SLTrib article. We need the why on this to ease our thinking about how Ms Fisher expects her division and/or herself to benefit from this unlikely action.

  14. One possible explanation is that Ms. Fisher drank the Kool-Aid, meaning she swallowed the Republican argument that the government cannot afford to spend money on the public welfare. The basic function of government has traditionally been to transfer wealth up from the masses to the few wealthy at the top. In the middle of the 20th century, there arose a notion that government should change its focus to making sure those at the bottom get a living wage, clean food and water, affordable energy, safe homes and cars. Now the backlash has come: arguments that the government is broke and, while limitless money is somehow available to fight wars and bail out banks (which both transfer the average citizens’ tax money up to the rich), there is no money for Social Security, Medicare, and other services the rich don’t need. So Ms. Fisher may believe the government needs Arts and Museums’ rainy-day set aside in order to survive (and pay the legal defense costs of those who drive their 4-wheelers through archeological sites). Or, she may be a cynic who knows she will be promoted by her superiors for giving back money they didn’t want to spend on the public good in the first place.

  15. I love the excuse of “we are going a different direction” used by Ms Fisher and her minions. This simply means Lynnette was not going to be the puppet they wanted to allocate funds the way they thought was best. I worked with Lynnette for years and she always had the citizens of Utah in the forefront. She was reasonable and just as a leader, willing to listen to her staff and problem solve. The arts in Utah will certainly feel her loss. Concerns for the future expressed in many of these comments is warranted. The arts community and media need to be watchful and not let time dilute their concerns.

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