Future Leader: Museum of the West puts plans in motion for executive director position

Future Leader: Museum of the West puts plans in motion for executive director position

By Wayne Schutsky

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West has announced a leadership shakeup and succession plan for founding director and CEO Mike Fox.

The board of trustees hired Dr. W. James Burns to fill a newly created executive director position at the museum, which opened in 2015.

Fox, who has over 50 years experience working in museums, has led the nonprofit that operates the museum since 2008.

“The best thing we ever did was hire the guy sitting next to me, Mike Fox, because of his great history in putting these things together,” says former Scottsdale Councilmember Jim Bruner, chairman of the board since 2007.

Fox has committed to remaining in the CEO post through 2024, at which point it is anticipated Burns will take over those duties, according to museum leadership.

Scottsdale Museum of the West Inc. operates the museum under a contract with the city, which owns the building. It began the search for an executive director over two years ago at Fox’s behest.

Burns, who comes to Museum of the West after three years as executive director of the Arizona Historical Society, will start at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in mid-October.

He will be in charge of responsible of day-to-day management of museum operations, including staffing, creative exhibition and public programming development, marketing, fundraising, facility maintenance and security. 

During his remaining time, Fox will take a step back from those day-to-day operations but will remain an active part of museum leadership while mentoring Burns.

Fox will help the institution broaden its private sector support and in other ways to the benefit of the organization’s future.

He will also work with the developer behind the nearby Museum Square development — the neighboring $300 million mixed-use project approved by Scottsdale City Council in 2019 — to “aid in the revitalization of the museum’s neighborhood in the historic arts district.”

Burns and Fox previously worked together at the Museum of Northern Arizona and its Colton Research Center.

The new hire announcement came shortly after the Airpark News’ sister publication, the Scottsdale Progress, published an article examining the museum’s performance over its first six years.

The report found the museum has received critical accolades over the years — including an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute — but fell short of attendance projections touted by the city officials before Scottsdale committed $11.4 million to build it and millions more to keep it operational.

According to a city council memo from February 2013, the museum was expected to generate an annual attendance between 87,000 and 118,000 by its fifth year of operation.

However, attendance has never exceeded 75,394 in a single year and has dipped as low as 41,176 in 2017-18, the Progress found.

Beyond the initial $11 million capital investment, the city committed up to $400,000 in donation matching funds each year since 2013 and another $900,000 for educational programming and exhibits.

The city approved a new management contract in July with the nonprofit that runs the museum and will pay it a $250,000 management fee next year in addition to the $400,000 donation match.

In a statement to the Progress, museum leadership emphasized that the bed tax is a tax assessed on visitors, not Scottsdale residents.

“(Fox) will see that the model created by the city for the museum’s direct and indirect support which was defined before there was a museum be continuously honored, including to have Scottsdale citizens enjoy the ownership, reputation and renown of Scottsdale’s Museum of the West for free,” according to the museum’s statement.

“It will continue that citizens who have paid nothing for the museum’s construction will pay nothing for the museum’s operation. No sales tax, no property tax, no income tax … nothing!”

A report by a third-party consultant in 2013 also projected the museum would earn 45% of its total revenue through operations like ticket sales by year five with the rest coming from contributions from the city and other donors.

According to the museum, it generates 74.5% of its revenue through earned and unearned income on average in a given year.

But, according to its most recent tax filing, the museum earned about 25% of its total revenue in 2019 and the city paid $3.8 million between 2015 and 2019, accounting for about 31% of the organization’s overall $12.4 million revenue during that span.

Bruner says he believes the museum is headed in the right direction.

“We’ve gone through a challenging five or six years from an economic standpoint and the local economy, but we think we’re coming out the end of the tunnel,” Bruner says.

“The future is extremely bright, and we’re very proud of our relationship with support from the city as well as people in the community and the tourist community.”

The Burns hiring will likely increase administrative costs, as it will add a second executive-level salary to payroll.

Museum leadership declined to provide information on Burns’ and Fox’s salaries.

Tax records show Fox was paid a salary of $321,643 in 2019.

Bruner says the Burns hiring is “enthusiastically supported” by the board and that Burns has a track record of “impressive leadership” at developing institutions.

“Dr. Burns’ years of impressive leadership in the museum profession, and notably his contributing roles in the development of the Booth Museum of Western Art in Georgia and the maturation of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, bode well for him to lead our 6-year-old institution to great new milestones,” a statement from Bruner says.

“The museum is fortunate that it will have the vision, experience, and management qualities of two regional and national museum leaders of their different generations to implement this new leadership succession plan in an exemplary manner.”

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