Records obtained last week through the Texas Public Information Act describes the internal friction that led to the resignation of six board members and the museum's director, Kim Tomio, who left this week to pursue a job opportunity in California.
Mayor Barbara Bass said Wednesday the upheaval in the group's leadership and questions about its financial transparency played key roles in the city's move to halt funding for the next fiscal year in lieu of supporting other arts projects.
The museum's longtime director agreed last week to discuss the situation, calling the tension between the organization and the city “unfortunate.”
“I don't understand how things broke down, but they did,” Mrs. Tomio said. “It didn't need to happen this way — it was just a sad misunderstanding.”
The city hasn't reversed its position on the money, but museum officials said this week they are determined to press on, with or without the city's financial support.
“We will continue to explore all possible avenues and partnerships,” Verna Hall, the new board president, said this week. “We are committed to having a museum to maintain a permanent collection and bring some of the best possible exhibits and educational programs to this area.”
Donors agreed to contribute to a new building on the assumption it would be built on a parcel of land the entity purchased in 2007 off University Boulevard near Lazy Creek, adjacent to The University of Texas at Tyler, officials said.
Preliminary design plans for that location call for a $27 million, 42,000 square foot, multi-level facility the likes of which East Texas has never seen, Mrs. Tomio said.
Supporters pledged about $17 million so far to help bring the project to fruition, but museum representatives actually hope to raise $50 million to boost endowment and bridge monies, the former director said.
Mrs. Tomio said the museum spent more than $800,000 to purchase the Lazy Creek property, plus about $4 million more for project-related costs such as design, site assessments and fundraising.
“Those plans were substantially complete,” she said. “It (museum) would put this city on the map. This would be the biggest thing in Texas since the Kimbell (art museum in Fort Worth).”
But coming up with the remaining funds to get the project started has been a challenge, she said, adding, “It (the construction delay) was all about the money.”
One of those options was a downtown location offered in 2005 by former Mayor Joey Seeber, who encouraged the museum to consider the former King Chevrolet site, records show.
Museum officials ultimately chose the Lazy Creek locale and talk of going downtown ended, until last year when the reconsideration committee approached the city to see if incentives were tied to the downtown location.
Mrs. Tomio, who did not serve on that committee, said the downtown site was different than the wooded, rugged terrain in the purchased parcel so architects were engaged to explore reducing the size of the building.
Architects also were asked to whittle down the size of the Lazy Creek plans to see if any significant savings could arise by that reduction, records show.
In January, the museum's board and reconsideration committee met to discuss a proposed memorandum of understanding on exactly what the city had to offer.
The committee outlined a proposed agreement for the museum to build a $20 million facility on the city-owned King Chevrolet site and purchase the land on a five-year lease-purchase agreement, with options to buy additional parcels for expansion as needed, records show.
To help support the venture, the city offered to more than double its financial support, from $44,500 to $100,000 annually, using money from the hotel occupancy tax, documents state.
The city agreed to maintain the common areas around the museum and provide security.
The panel asked for more details and voted to continue negotiating with the city, apparently angering some donors who raised concerns about the new proposed downtown location, Mrs. Tomio said.
She said some people on the committee viewed the vote as acceptance of the city's offer, and those members relayed that information to the city.
Minutes of the board's Feb. 13 meeting detail the level of donor discontent in the wake of the vote.
“Numerous major donors object to the downtown location and some have withdrawn their pledge because of that objection. … If the board votes to go forward with building on that (King Chevrolet) site they will be re-allocating their funds. These donors also stated that if the project moved forward at the King Chevrolet site, they would also be reconsidering their annual contributions to museum operations,” the minutes state.
Records also state one board member threatened to “move pledged funds to her foundation” and ensure “her life insurance policy would no longer go to the museum” if the downtown location was pursued.
After more discussion, the board voted in February to reverse its position on a downtown site and cancel considerations of the proposed agreement with the city, records show.
The Tyler City Council learned of the development through an email from the city manager.
“There has been a turn of events with the Tyler Museum of Art. The board has now reversed their decision to pursue the downtown location,” McDaniel wrote on Feb. 15. “Unfortunately, there appears to be a lot of discord and lack of consensus on their part right now, which does not make for a good partnership.”
Records show the city's new budget proposal earmarks $50,000 for the Arts & Innovation Institution, a new project that has yet to be announced.
Mrs. Tomio said she's saddened, but not surprised.
“The city did what it could do, but the board felt it wasn't enough to overcome the challenges of being downtown in that location,” Mrs. Tomio said, noting a preferred downtown location was The Forum, at Front and Broadway Avenue.
The abrupt change in plans prompted a backlash from some committee members, who raised concerns about spending $5 million on incomplete plans for the Lazy Creek site and turning away from the city's proposal to move downtown, records show.
“Six of the eight members of the reconsideration committee resigned within the following two weeks, in part because they felt that the previously agreed upon negotiations with the city had been breached in a manner that was not in keeping with accepted business practices,” according to an Aug. 15 letter former President-elect Beth Whitney sent last week to the city on behalf of the former committee members.
Mrs. Whitney, who resigned from the board, did not respond this week to requests for an interview.
Museum officials said city funding represents only about 4 percent of its annual budget and the recent layoffs of two of their full-time employees are unrelated to the cut.
“We're moving forward,” Ms. Hall said. “We have a museum to run and a museum to build. It's something we have to do and it's something we want to do.”