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.”
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.