The Bishop Museum’s president and chief executive officer, Blair Collis, has resigned, the museum’s board of directors announced in an email news release Friday.

Attorney LindaLee Kuuleilani “Cissy” Farm will serve as interim president while the museum conducts a nationwide search for a new president and CEO. Farm is a partner at the law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn and Stifel.

The news release didn’t say why Collis was resigning. His last day will be May 6.

Blair Collis
Blair Collis, CEO and president of the Bishop Museum for the past five years, resigned Friday. Facebook

“It has been an honor to have served Bishop Museum over the last 13 years, and particularly as president and CEO over the last five years,” Collis said in the release. “I am leaving to pursue new opportunities and know the museum is in strong and capable hands.”

Collis didn’t immediately return calls to comment after messages were left on his cellphone.

Board Chair Allison Holt Gendreau, whom I have been  trying to reach since early Thursday, when I heard Collis was resigning, also failed to get back to me.

Collis had been under pressure in recent weeks for using museum funds for personal use.

The Attorney General’s Review

The Attorney General’s office, in a routine review of the museum’s tax records, discovered that Collis had taken an interest-free personal loan from the museum’s funds.

The museum’s 990 form, filed with the Internal Revenue Service in 2014, showed that Collis borrowed $14, 377 from the museum’s treasury.  Tax records show the loan was not authorized by anyone on the museum’s board . The form showed that Collis had repaid about $1,500 of the money.

Under Hawaii state law, nonprofits are prohibited from making loans to directors or officers. Joshua Wisch, spokesman for the Attorney General, said the thrust of the law is that the assets of a charity should not be put at risk on loans to insiders.

The 990 form on which the loan showed up is a report nonprofits file annually with the IRS. The purpose is to give the IRS an overview of a nonprofit’s governance, finances and activities in order for the government to determine whether the nonprofit should continue to get tax exempt status.

This is not the first time the Bishop Museum has been investigated for loaning money to an executive.

In 2004, the Attorney General’s office discovered in tax records that the museum had given a $300,000 loan at 7.333 percent interest to its then-director Donald Duckworth to buy a house.  Duckworth received the loan between  1998 and 2001. 

This is prohibited under Hawaii’s nonprofit law. The Attorney General’s office said the law does not give the AG the ability to fine a nonprofit or impose other penalties. But in extreme cases, the AG’s office has the authority to dissolve the nonprofit. The statute is a civil, not criminal offense.

Collis’s Rise

Collis has been president of the museum since 2011. The museum hired him initially for a year, in 1999, as a grant writer and development officer; then he left to work for Mutual Publishing.

The museum rehired him in 2003 as the director of Bishop Museum Press.  He then worked his way up to the top leadership position, advancing from marketing director to senior vice president and chief operating officer, and finally to museum president.

Tax records show that Collis, as museum president, earned an annual salary of $179,345 with “other compensation” listed as $32,387.

In January, Collis announced a five-year restructuring plan to rescue the museum from its financial decline. The museum’s money troubles became severe after the 2008 financial turndown.  As the economy worsened, federal grants to the museum dipped from 43 percent to just 4 percent of the museum’s budget. 

The late Senator Dan Inouye has been credited with making sure the museum received federal earmarks for more than 25 years.

A Controversial Restructuring

After the loss of money, Collis supporters said he was up against a wall trying to find new ways to raise money. In announcing his restructuring plan, Collis said that in the future the museum would be run like a business. He called his business approach a growing trend in museums.      

Some of his budget-slashing proposals generated strong criticism, such as his plan to turn the museum’s scientific researchers into unpaid contractors responsible for finding their own outside funding.

Archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch, who worked for the museum from 1974 to 1984,  slammed this idea in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser op-ed piece:

“The problem with Bishop Museum’s new “business model” is precisely that the museum is not a business,”said Kirch.

”In the early 1980s, I was one of almost 30 Ph.D. researchers on the museum’s staff. Today, the research staff numbers fewer than 10. If Collis’ new plan goes through, I predict that soon there will be no researchers left.”

Changes under Collis’s leadership were immediately noticeable, such as keeping the museum open seven days a week, a new $5 charge for parking, and the opening of a Highway Inn local food restaurant in the Planetarium.

Although some changes were appreciated, scholars of Hawaiian history bristled at how difficult it became, with staff cutbacks, to get access to study documents in the museum.

“The museum is the beating heart of the Hawaiian people, and for scholars to have to wait for long periods to see important documents is heartbreaking,” said Maile Meyer.  Meyer is the founder of Na Mea Hawai, a Hawaiian resource center, and a former employee of the museum.

Taro farmers were upset when Collis announced the board of directors’ decision to sell two of the museum’s properties on the Big Island to raise more than $10 million: 537 acres in Waipio Valley, and the 15-acre Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Kealakekua.

The farmers working in Waipio were worried they would be forced off the land where for decades they had grown their crops in water-rich soil.

Ruffled Feathers

Colllis also got fanciers of Hawaiian artifacts mad when he said, in January, that it was not the right time to bring the Na Hulu Alii Royal Hawaiian Featherwork Exhibition to Hawaii.

The exhibit is currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It said to be the largest display of Hawaiian featherwork ever assembled in one display.

“It is amazing that the museum decided to cancel this important Hawaiian exhibition at the same time it was running a show on processed sugar,” said Meyer. “I think the museum got off its rails in terms of priorities.”

Former Bishop Museum Director of Community Affairs Noelle Kahanu said members of the community were saddened when Collis abruptly cancelled the featherwork exhibit without first reaching out to the community members to see if they could pitch in to help financially.

“It comes down to transparency. People felt left out,” says Kahanu.

 The 46-year-old Collis was born and raised in Australia. He came to Hawaii about 20 years ago on a tennis scholarship to the University of Hawaii Manoa. He  has a bachelor’s degree from the UH Shidler College of Business. Last year, he was one of 15 Hawaii residents to be awarded an Omidyar Fellowship for emerging leaders.

Meyer says it is important now to change the focus from Collis and what the museum board should have done, and instead to look ahead to consider how to better preserve the museum’s legacy.

“It is a national treasure. We need to make sure it is still here for our great, great great grandchildren,“ Meyer said.  

Kahanu said, “At the end of the day, it is about bringing in someone who can generate trust and reach out to the community with transparency.”

And probably most importantly, to figure out how bring in the necessary funding to keep the institution alive.

The Omidyar Fellows is a program of The Hawaii Leadership Forum. It is funded by Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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