Megan Johnston's year running the Rochester Art Center was marked by staff turnover and financial struggles. And those struggles continue, with five staff members being laid off as interim leadership tries to right the museum's financial ship.
The turmoil at the publicly-subsidized museum came as a shock to Rochester civic leaders, but not to trustees of the Georgia museum Johnston ran years before she came to Rochester.
Johnston, they say, left a trail of financial and personnel problems at the LaGrange Art Museum in LaGrange, Ga., that haunted the institution for years. Public documents and interviews show debt ballooned at the institution, which ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.
It's not clear whether the Rochester Art Center's hiring committee looked closely at Johnston's professional past before hiring her as executive director. Johnston left that job suddenly and without explanation earlier this year.
Some community leaders were bewildered by the mysterious, abrupt departure of a person they described as outgoing, enthusiastic and committed to transforming the museum.
But Johnston's prior track record raises questions about the decision to hire her in the first place.
"I was surprised, but more than that I was saddened," said Mary Ellen Landwehr, who worked with Johnston and the Rochester Art Center on a project that put sculptures along Rochester's bike trail system, the type of work that earned Johnston praise for community engagement.
"Megan had a level of personal enthusiasm that was almost magnetic," Landwehr said. "She would get easily excited about anything that had to do with art."
Community engagement is a prominent theme in Johnston's career, and it was a big reason the Rochester Art Center hired her in 2015 after a national search. She described herself as a hard worker with "very high expectations of myself and others."
At the RAC, Johnston says her accomplishments include expanded free family art days, and staging an Andy Warhol exhibit.
But if the praise for Johnston's approach to art was consistent, people who worked with her raise serious concerns about her management of staff and finances.
In LaGrange, she took over in late 2009 and left a year and a half later. After Johnston left, the IRS came calling. The museum owed $60,000 in unpaid payroll taxes.
Johnston says she did not know this. But that's not what Bobby Cammon, former vice president of the museum's board, says. Cammon said the museum's treasurer told him Johnston ordered the treasurer to withhold the payments to prevent paychecks from bouncing.
"One day, three men, two men or one man in a black suit comes in and says, 'Y'all have not paid your withholding taxes, and we're here to come shut you down,'" he recalled. "It was very threatening."
Karen Briggs, the LaGrange museum's current executive director, said Johnston made other questionable financial decisions when the Great Recession was straining the budget of LaGrange and many other arts institutions. The nonprofit LaGrange museum was subsidizing a for-profit gallery nearby that it had an artistic partnership with.
Publicly available financial documents indicate the LaGrange Art Museum suffered a financial meltdown in the two years that spanned Johnston's tenure. Nearly $38,000 in cash on hand dwindled to $1,000 six months after she left.
Total red ink approached $330,000. Debt exploded from $10,000 to more than $240,000. And management costs were quadruple the amount spent on arts programming.
In a series of interviews and emails with MPR News, Johnston explained that she was in the process of stabilizing the museum's finances. Revenue and contributions had rebounded slightly by the end of 2011, six months after she left.
The debt, however, crippled the institution and forced major, unwanted changes.
"We put the museum's permanent collection up on the walls for a year," said Briggs, the museum's current director. "We turned off the water in the fountains. We just shut everything down."
The financial problems came to light after Johnston left.
Cammon, however, said there'd been ongoing concerns about Johnston running roughshod over the staff. One resignation letter said Johnston did not respect her staff, was prone to inappropriate outbursts and that employees were motivated by fear.
Cammon said the board took note but felt helpless.
"I'm thinking this is really bad behavior. But I think no one wanted to fire her because you have to hire somebody," he said. "What do we do? And we did nothing."
Cammon also owns a framing shop in LaGrange and said Johnston left town without paying him for $800 in framing work he did for her personally, an accusation Johnston disputes.
Johnston left after about 18 months for a sequence of other jobs. Her next stint was leading an institution was in Ireland, where she took over at a financially troubled gallery and spent 14 months there.
Over her first six months the gallery reversed a deficit and posted a surplus. Revenue fell, but spending declined much more.
The gallery's fortunes were on the upswing and the finances were in good shape when she left for Rochester in fall 2015, Johnston said.
But the same kind of staff turmoil that troubled museum board members in LaGrange surfaced when Johnston came to the Rochester Art Center. During her tenure at the RAC, nearly all the center's full-time employees left or were fired.
Former RAC staffers say her management style was controlling, unpredictable and distrustful, and fueled the turnover.
Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara was among the employees who quit. Johnston, she said, set the tone early on by belittling her in a staff meeting
"She told me that I needed a chaperone and that I was inexperienced," Nfonoyim-Hara recalled. "She just kept saying this at the meeting until I was in tears."
Johnston said she inherited a talented but inefficient staff rife with interpersonal conflicts, so she managed with a firm hand.
"I worked very, very hard," she said. "And while a small few may not have liked the methods that were employed, I absolutely tried to find common ground with staff for a better way of working.
Publicly available documents make it clear the Rochester center was struggling financially before Johnston arrived. Ongoing construction at the civic center next door seriously hurt foot traffic and revenue.
Johnston said she didn't ignore the problem but responded with a strategic austerity plan meant to improve the center's grim financial picture.
"You have to look for efficiencies," she said. "Spend smart, take calculated risks for amazing programs and market the heck out of them."
Artist Su Legatt defends Johnston's tenure and praises her for being a curator who deeply understands the artist's vision.
But she said Johnston's strong personality can be misunderstood.
"That assertiveness and confidence doesn't always fit well with people," Legatt said.
It's not clear why Johnston left the Rochester center. She has signed a non-disclosure agreement and received severance. Board members have been mum on the subject.
The board checked Johnston's references, but did not run a background check, said Steve Troutman, a member of the board's executive committee. Johnston's track record of engaging the community was impressive, he added, but if the hiring committee had known about all the problems in LaGrange she may not have gotten an offer.
Finding a strong executive director for the RAC will be critical to its survival. In coming weeks, museum leaders are expected to unveil more details about their financial strategy, a plan they say will be mindful of the public and private money they rely on.
A recent financial audit of the RAC said there is substantial doubt about the RAC's ability to survive, and city officials say they are watching the center closely. Taxpayers' annual contributions have totaled more than $1 million over several years.
After hearing about Johnston's tenure at the LaGrange Art Museum, City Council President Randy Staver said he hopes future RAC leadership searches are more thorough.
"Clearly I think this is going to beg the question of making sure these organizations are following an appropriate process," he said.
Even with the most rigorous vetting, Briggs, with the LaGrange Art Museum, said it's not easy to find someone with the right combination of skills.
"Somebody who is artistically oriented," she said, "may not have had the business background required for running an arts organization."
Correction (May 11, 2017): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Bobby Cammon's role. He is the former vice president of the museum's board. The story has been updated.