Some take-away lessons from the rise and fall of Robert Archibald

By Eric Mink

I’m not expecting much from the continuing official inquiries into events that culminated in the resignation under fire last December of Robert R. Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society.

(“Missouri History Museum” is an operational name.)

Certainly last week’s public poking around by the Parks and Environment Committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen – the second such hearing so far this year – produced little more than repeated platitudes about accountability, transparency and “moving forward.”

I did perk up a little reading the St. Louis Beacon’s online report of an exchange between committee chair Joseph Roddy and witness John Roberts, who became chairman of the Historical Society’s board of trustees just days before Archibald left. Roddy asked Roberts why Archibald got a six-month, $270,000 consulting deal, centered around fundraising, on the way out.

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“I was in a quandary,” Roberts replied. “We have all this controversy going on. The man who has led the museum for 24-plus years is walking out at the end of the year, and I have no real knowledge about running the history museum.”

Remarkable, considering Roberts has been a trustee since 2001 and, according to federal filings, served as treasurer in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Still, with Archibald gone, the pressing challenge is bureaucratic: reforming the Historical Society’s nonsensical governance structure. As president, Archibald reported only to the board of trustees, which chooses its own membership. A separate subdistrict board of the Zoo-Museum District – its members appointed by elected officials – is supposed to oversee $10 million in annual property tax revenue that funds museum operations.

But this problem is already being addressed. Former Sen. John Danforth helped the boards forge a new joint governance contract late last year, and the resulting changes seem promising on paper. Whether they prove so in practice should be apparent by the end of the year. Meanwhile, members of both boards kvetch over the details of power and position.

What fascinates me, though, is not the bureaucracy. It’s the human story: Archibald’s self-inflicted, warp-speed fall from grace.

In June 2012, the American Association for State and Local History named him the recipient of its Award of Distinction, a rarely bestowed lifetime-achievement honor for practitioners in the field who have “demonstrated the highest standards of performance and professional ethics.” In July, Archibald signed a new three-year contract with the Historical Society.

He was gone by Christmas, resigning after revelations of appallingly poor past judgments and utterly tone-deaf reactions to them. His departure was cushioned not only by the aforementioned consulting deal but also by a staggering $567,000 contractual payout for accrued vacation time.

The tripwire of Archibald’s undoing was a real estate deal, the hinky particulars of which emerged only last fall.

In November 2006, the Historical Society bought a piece of property on the north side of the 5800 block of Delmar Boulevard from former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and his business partner, James Armstrong.

The museum paid Bosley and Armstrong $875,000. It did not get an independent appraisal of the property. Additional expenses, including architectural plans, have brought the museum’s cost to more than $1.1 million.

Bosley, however, was on the Society’s board of trustees in 2005 when Archibald told trustees about his expansive plans to build a third museum building and when the executive committee approved $1.5 million for property acquisition.

A recent report by Hottle Appraisal Co. estimated that the property was worth about $260,000 when the museum paid $875,000 for it and is worth only $215,000 now.

Notwithstanding tenacious reporting, commentary and editorials on the story by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Archibald might still be here if he had admitted at the outset that he’d screwed up and been hosed. He might have avoided problems altogether if he’d been backed up by trustees on guard for dangers lurking in their visionary’s blind spots.

Of which there turned out to be too many:

– Archibald failed to foresee that the timing of Bosley’s tenure as a trustee and the absence of an appraisal would make the land purchase look like an inside deal with a flagrant conflict of interest.

– He failed to anticipate the outrageous appearance of $567,000 in vacation pay. Yet some quick long division with recent census data indicates it would take 10 years for a median-income household in St. Louis County to earn that much, 16 years in the city of St. Louis.

– And he failed to recognize the emptiness of the defense that no tax dollars were used to buy Bosley’s property (i.e. no property tax dollars). In fact, even so-called “private” contributions to non-profit groups like the Historical Society enjoy the massive public subsidy of deductibility from taxable income. Nationally, such tax expenditures were worth an estimated $43 billion to donors in 2011– not counting contributions to health and educational institutions.

I’m hardly the first to take note of my hometown’s chronic shortage of quality leadership – governmental, corporate and civic alike. Archibald, in contrast, was an inspired visionary. He and his colleagues took a crypt of an institution and transformed it into a vibrant, enlightened, race-bridging force in the community on the strength of relevant history, impressive exhibition skills and finely honed instincts for connecting with people.

Now the visionary is gone, and a vital institution has lost public confidence and other cultural institutions fear possible collateral damage.

But the most tragic casualty of this whole affair may well be the Center for Community and Family Stories Archibald wanted to create for the new building on Delmar. He envisioned it as a place where individuals and families of all economic classes, ethnicities and racial backgrounds could have their oral histories professionally recorded and preserved for future generations.

Archibald understood the special resonance of oral history in African-American culture and the powerful symbolism such a center would acquire being situated on the north side Delmar, one of our region’s historical racial dividing lines. Even if this program becomes operational at the museum building in Forest Park, it will lack that symbolism and some of its resonance.

In what strikes me as a final irony, Archibald inadvertently left behind a kind of prototype for what such recorded histories might look like. It’s a fascinating video interview he conducted with a prominent St. Louisan who offered his perspectives on high-profile past events.

You can watch the interview via the Internet at www.youtube.com/watch?v=zw7__5vHYOk.

The interviewee is Freeman Bosley Jr.