Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres got right to work when she took over as executive director of the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum.
Beres launched new programming and exhibitions, which immediately drove up attendance and membership. She landed new grants, partnerships, private donations and corporate sponsorships, which boosted the organization’s budget, according to the museum’s annual report.
Yet the museum’s board fired her in June, a year and a half after she came aboard. Neither Beres nor the museum explained why. The board said employee privacy concerns prohibited it from commenting.
But the move didn’t sit well with some of the board members, museum staffers and supporters. Many have resigned or withdrawn support, and two of the museum’s remaining four staffers quit last month.
Now, a museum founder and one of its longtime champions have filed a lawsuit against many of the museum’s board of directors. In the complaint, Chinese Historical Museum founder Sally Wong Avery and Tom Hom, a former San Diego City Council member who also helped found the museum with his late wife Dorothy Hom, paint a picture of an out-of-control board of directors that’s unwilling to let go of its power. While Beres’ ouster isn’t mentioned in the complaint, Avery and Hom were among the most vocal about her firing, and it’s clear that the incident triggered the lawsuit.
Avery and Hom are hoping to force a change of leadership at the museum, which has an annual operating budget of about $330,000 according to its most recent tax filing.
In the complaint, Avery and Hom allege the board of directors is violating its bylaws by allowing several members to exceed term limits. They also said the board doesn’t have enough members, another violation of its bylaws.
Past Chinese Historical Museum newsletters show board members like Michael Yee, Polly Liew and Sawyer Hsu have served on the board for nearly two decades. The museum’s bylaws limit terms to three consecutive three-year terms, or nine years total.
But the board recently voted to end term limits, according to the complaint, so now Avery and Hom are asking a judge to issue restraining orders against board members until they can have a special membership meeting to hold new board elections, reinstate term limits and sort out other leadership issues.
A preliminary hearing was held Thursday, and the case is scheduled for a full hearing on Oct. 23. Neither Avery, Hom, nor the current museum leadership would comment about the lawsuit.
Board members violating bylaws isn’t the only problem at the museum. Voice of San Diego obtained a recent peer assessment of the Chinese Historical Museum by the executive director of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Much of the review is positive, but the author notes the museum’s employee compensation “is well below the market and in some cases, may not even meet minimum wage requirements.”
Three former museum employees and board members said they couldn’t discuss the situation, citing legal concerns.
The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum has three different museum sites in a part of downtown San Diego that was once home to hundreds of Chinese people and their families. The glitzy Gaslamp Quarter has covered up most traces of the former Chinatown that once thrived there, but one of the Chinese Historical Museum’s goals is to keep that history alive.
The museum was founded in 1996 and has since transformed the historic buildings it inhabits into a nonprofit cultural center that has an extensive collection of Chinese art and artifacts and works to educate San Diegans about the Chinese American experience.
In a June email obtained by Voice of San Diego, Hom urged board museum members and supporters to rally in support of Beres and ask the board to reconsider its decision to fire her.
“I feel that this kind of improper board action will greatly hurt the museum and its reputation in the community,” Hom wrote. “We are all very proud of this museum’s history and its recent success under the new director, who has helped revitalize and grow the museum’s local impact with more events, exhibitions and education programming.”