Can New Leadership at Miami’s Embattled Frost Museum Achieve Stability?

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Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science Construction Miami / Phillip Pessar

June 29, 2016; Miami Herald

NPQ has long been following the financial and board leadership challenges at the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science as the organization prepares to open a new $305 million facility in Miami’s Museum Park. From fundraising and construction-cost shortfalls to a troubling approach to board “reconstitution” to a somewhat controversial “rescue” plan involving public funds, executive director Gillian Thomas, now 72, has remained at the helm. Last week, she retired after 13 years of leading the institution. Frank Steslow, chief operating officer at the museum since 2008, has been named the new president.

Thomas is leaving after making sure funding was in place to complete the construction and open the new facility. This is, essentially, when focus needs to shift from the building project to operations—which will be a demanding task in itself, at least in terms of fundraising. The museum’s opening was originally expected for this summer, but the fundraising drama and the need to scale back some of the original plans (at least for now) led to delays. Still, once it’s complete, the Frost Science Museum will be a jewel in Miami’s crown; its rare combination of aquarium, science museum, and planetarium is likely to draw impressive numbers of visitors. If construction is finished by December, as many expect, then, as the Miami Herald reports, “the fish will be going into the tanks as early as October to give them time to acclimatize—with a hoped-for public opening in early 2017.”

As we mentioned above, there’s still a lot of fundraising to be done—the one-time $45 million grant provided by Miami-Dade County earlier this year (plus interest the county must pay on the loan behind the grant) to keep construction going wiped out what had been budgeted as $80 million in operating expenses over a 20-year period. And additional funds will need to be raised if the projects cut when the budget was trimmed by $20 million are to be completed somewhere down the road.

Thomas will serve as an advisor to the project through the end of 2016, although she is moving to France, where her husband recently took a position and where her children live. (Thomas hails from the UK.) “What’s coming up is going to be something very special,” she said. “It’s really excellent talent, the team that’s in place here, and they need to focus on transitioning from project to operation. So it’s a good time for me to retire.”

Cesar Alvarez, who chairs the four-person “executive committee” that continues to fill the gap left when the former board of trustees (except for Patricia Frost) was forced to resign, expressed his gratitude for the work Thomas has done:

I think Gillian did an excellent job. These are difficult projects to take one and manage and finish. They all go through some issues, some larger than others. We wish it hadn’t happened, but she’s done a great job for Miami, for the museum and for education.

Steslow has been jointly running the museum’s operations and construction project with Thomas. His extensive experience elsewhere, both at science museums and aquariums, is one reason Thomas brought him to Miami.

“I’ve done quite a few openings,” he said. “We’re poised for a really great, successful opening. We’re in good shape right now.”—Eileen Cunniffe