Patrick Ladden, who was named interim-Director of the 550-acre home of founding father George Mason in September, will lead the organization into the spring, and, perhaps, summer months as the Board of Regents hires his full-time replacement.
"My intention is to stay at Gunston Hall for a brief period, until a replacement is here," Ladden told Patch from his office. "We can't continue to accept that lower attendance is the norm, and the way to do that is through more programming, better programming and better outreach to schools. And I'd say we're already doing a fantastic job of preservation here. That mansion is fantastic, and this property is beautiful."
Ladden, who currently teaches museum management at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, recently retired as the program director of the Museum of American History, where he worked for more than 25 years. He received his master's degree in Art History and Museum Studies from George Washington University.
"We know that almost all the school districts have reduced their discretionary spending, and field trips are considered discretionary," said Ladden. "So, we need to reach into the school systems and provide outreach, and we need to coordinate those activities better."
Gunston Hall is owned by the Commonwealth and is run by a Board of Regents (chosen from The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America). Former Executive Director David Reese, who was appointed to the position in 2003 by then-Gov. Mark Warner, was let go after a meeting of the Regents on April 16. He was harshly criticized for firing Gunston Hall's longtime education director last year, cutting back the grounds and eliminating educational events and programs. He was temporarily replaced by Gunston Hall archivist and librarian Mark Whatford, who was to hold the position until a permanent replacement was hired, but that plan never materialized.
First Regent Wylie Raab explained the situation to Patch: "Mark was initially made acting director in the wake of David (Reese) being gone. Then, we anticipated that that would segue into our hiring a new director, and we found out we couldn't, because the Commonwealth, since they own the plantation, insists that the director be a Commonwealth employee. And the Commonwealth, like the military, has pay bands and we were not given even a remotely sufficient or substantial enough pay range to be able to offer.
"So, we said we needed to raise the pay band, and we were told that it would require legislation, which is next year. So, we said, 'OK, leave the pay where it is and we'll supplement it,' and we were told that would also require legislation. And that left us with option three, and make the new director a non-Commonwealth employee, and we were told we couldn't do that. So, that left us with no choices, and now we're waiting on the legislators to figure out how we want to handle it...
"So, we've asked the Governor's office for a special request to adjust the current budget to accommodate this need," said Raab.
Virginia State Del. Dave Albo (R-42) redacted a Bill in last year's General Assembly that would have reconfigured management of Gunston Hall. "I pulled the bill when they got rid of the guy who couldn't get along with everybody (Reese), and hired someone who is," he said. "I haven't heard about this pay problem…but the fact that I haven't received any calls or letters means that its going about 1,000 times better than it was last year."
Virginia State Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36), who also wrote a bill last year to revamp the mission of Gunston Hall, could not be reached for comment.
Raab would not say how much the new Director should be paid. "Ask the search committee. They're responsible for figuring out the salary. I wouldn't be at liberty to say," she said.
As to hiring Ladden: "He's absolutely terrific. He's so capable. He has 30 years of experience in museum management," Raab said. "He's so proactive, and I think he eats AAA batteries for breakfast."
Strategic planning and hiring an education coordinator
Ladden has been given the green light by the Regents to hire a new Education Coordinator, and six candidates out of 50 have been identified for call-backs.
"We all are buying into this idea that education is critical and at the center of what we do here," said Ladden. "We hope the position can be filled by February or March. We recruited for that position last spring, we have reviewed all the applications and we are contacting the applicant pool that has risen to the top."
The Regents and staff are currently drafting their five-year strategic plan, a document that will be the blueprint for growth at the plantation over the next five years. The document will be available for public viewing in the summer. "We need a strategic plan, and need to know where we are and where we're going," said Raab.
Even though visitation is on the decline at many historic sites, said Ladden, "That's not true at places like Mount Vernon, which has seen a growth. That's one of the reasons we are doing strategic planning so that we can look at our strengths and our weaknesses and how we can overcome some of those to be a more vital place to citizens in this region."
Such planning may be difficult considering potential budget cuts. "The Commonwealth is telling us to plan for a 4 percent budget cut as an exercise, cutting 3-to-4 percent from our budget," said Ladden. "But we are not able to look at cuts like that without significant changes."