When his brother, David, told him about an opportunity at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum five years ago, Phil Wallis wasn’t looking for a job, and he certainly wasn’t looking to lead a museum. Even though he’d helped the National Audubon Society open a museum in Pennsylvania, Wallis made it clear to Stever Aubrey and the rest of the board of directors at the museum that building and creating are his passion.
“I’m not a museum guy — period,” Wallis recalled telling the board. Not exactly the sales pitch you give when you’re being interviewed to lead a museum, but it was honest.
Wallis told them he is “an agent of change.” “I told them, ‘I’m going to be hiring smart people to get things done.’”
In a conversation with The Times Monday, Wallis explained why after raising the $30 million needed to renovate the former Marine Hospital, orchestrating the move from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven, developing the museum’s brand, and presiding over its grand opening in 2019, he has stepped down as the museum’s executive director, effective immediately.
Wallis told the board last Wednesday, his staff on Thursday, and it became public on Saturday through a press release and an email to museum supporters. He is staying on as a consultant through the end of October, and Heather Seger, the museum’s advancement director, will serve as the interim executive director.
Known for his bow ties, beaming smile, and seemingly endless positive attitude, Wallis told The Times he began thinking about the change around Christmas. “This was not a quick decision,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and what it’s done to the museum’s finances helped accelerate his decision. The museum remains closed to the public due to the ongoing health crisis, and a summer’s worth of events and exhibits are on hold.
Wallis described his reasoning as being three “Fs” — fit, finances, and future. He would later add a fourth — flexibility.
But based on how much “fit” filled the conversation, that was obviously his biggest reason. Having moved the museum into its new home, it came back to what Wallis told the museum board in the beginning: He’s not a museum guy.
“This has to do with new chapters for the museum and me,” he said. “The fit goes to the needs of the museum in the coming years. A great deal of this was exacerbated by the COVID situation. We’re all taking a national pause to be reflective about what matters, to scale back for the next year, perhaps longer. We don’t know. Given that context and my competencies, personality, passions — I’m a creator and builder of visions. I believe that. That’s what I’ve done in every job I’ve done. Figured out the issues, built it, sustained it, and then departed with everything being stronger and better. That’s my MO.”
He’d worked with staff on a business plan and a strategic plan moving forward. COVID-19 has put all of that on hold for this year, and maybe next. “We don’t know what next year will bring, either — are we back to bus tours, and cruises? I wouldn’t want to bet on it.”
As for the future, Wallis said, a new board is about to be elected. This will give that board a chance to hire someone that fits their vision — someone with museum experience. “It’s the perfect time for new leadership, for them to pick the perfect fit for their new chapter,” he said.
In terms of finances, Wallis is the highest-paid employee. Without admission revenue from visitors, the loss of his salary gives the museum some breathing room. Which leads to that fourth “F,” which is flexibility.
“Flexibility to make financial and structure and personnel decisions,” he said. “That’s really healthy. I know this was maybe brave, courageous, but it is the right thing. I know I’m not the guy to manage this next chapter.”
Wallis makes it clear that he and his wife, Carolyn, who is a consultant, are not leaving the Island. “I want to be happy on this Island because I love this Island,” he said. He’s not sure what his next chapter will be, but he said it will be on the Island. “I’m 61. I have a lot of gas in the tank.”
Looking for a job while he was still employed by the museum wasn’t an option for him: “I didn’t think it was reasonable to think that one could explore opportunities on an Island where everybody knows everybody.”
In the press release and during the interview, Wallis talked about the pride he takes in what he and his team accomplished. In its first year in Vineyard Haven, the museum attracted more than 27,000 visitors, more than five times the attendance of the previous year, according to the release. The museum also had 2,100 members join the organization, and its education program had a 90 percent increase over previous years.
“I couldn’t be prouder of all that we have accomplished,” Wallis said. “I am a builder and creator of visions, and I came here to help make the longstanding dream of a new museum worthy of the Vineyard come true. Together with the fantastic staff, board, donors, and volunteers, and all of the town officials who supported our vision, we were able to build a world-class facility that exceeded all expectations. The museum is now ready for a new chapter to be written and told, to advance the success we have created together.”
In the press release, Aubrey called Wallis the “perfect person” to have led the museum’s big move. “Without his combination of enthusiasm, dedication, outreach, and energy, we would not today be in our fantastic new campus in Vineyard Haven, let alone having been able to simultaneously increase our reach across all the Island communities, throughout the schools, among older adults, and to families of all ages,” Aubrey said in the release. “I am so proud of our success, and we have more to do. I feel strongly that the next chapter will be equally as successful. Thank you, Phil, for what you have done for us all. We wish you well.”
With his chapter fully written, it’s a good time to leave, Wallis said. “I really believe that finding someone with museum experience will help the museum become the world-class museum that it’s poised to become,” he said.
And Wallis reiterated that his next opportunity — still to be determined — will be on the Vineyard: “We’re not leaving for some other opportunity. We’ve fallen in love.”