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Old Building, New Ideas

Athenaeum elects new board members, sets a new course of direction.

From the outside, it seems that little has changed at the Athenaeum. Its stately Greek revival columns still closely resemble the antebellum bank that was originally constructed in 1851. Since then the building has been a church, a performance hall and a museum of sorts. Since 1964, the Prince Street landmark has been operated by a nonprofit organization known as the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association — a group that describes its mission statement as one that “designs and organizes exhibits, programs and performances and also operates a historic facility to enrich the Washington area cultural life.”

Like most nonprofit organizations, members of its board of trustees come and go. But recent months have seen the organization beset by an unusual amount of turnover, internal disputes and acrimonious personal clashes. Much of the debate has centered on Veronica Riisma, the nonprofit organization’s executive director who has taken the Athenaeum in a new direction since taking the position in August 2005. Some board members have praised Riisma as a focused and organized leader while other board members have resigned in protest of her leadership.

“It is my opinion that she does not have what is in the best interest of the Athenaeum as a long term goal,” wrote former board member Marianne Horan in a May 24 resignation letter. “Until recently, the board was able to have honest, open and friendly discussions. It seems that this is no longer the case.”

Several other board members followed suit, and the organization was forced to find seven new members at its annual meeting last month — almost half of its 15-member board. But Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), who has been a board member since 2002, said that Riisma’s leadership has been a blessing to the organization. She said that the recently reconstituted board will be able to improve use of the historic building.

“The Athenaeum has clearly been in better shape since Veronica got there.” Ticer said. “We really needed some new blood, and I’m excited about the new board.”

<b>A NATIVE OF FORT LAUDERDALE</b>, FLA., Riisma graduated from high school in Florida before moving to New York City. There, she became a fundraiser for the American Ballet Theatre while working for Verizon and later J.P. Morgan Chase. She came to the Washington area to become executive director of Washington Concert Opera, where she developed a partnership concert program with the Kreeger Museum. When Riisma found out about an opening as executive director at the Athenaeum, she became excited by the possibilities.

“I felt like the Athenaeum could be a real community resource,” Riisma said. “And there was an openness to further programming.”

Immediately, Riisma set a different tone. In an April 24 memorandum commenting on her first few months, then-President David Goehler praised her promotional abilities and her creative management. He complimented her ability to find a new lead to the Nutcracker when one actor bowed out. And he also commended her for creating a new intern program. But he was critical of her interpersonal skills and organizational aptitude, accusing her of mismanaging an obligation to serve breakfast and lunch to an annual convention of antique dealers in March known as Antiques in Alexandria.

“Funding to the Athenaeum from AIA activities, including the silent auction and the dealer breakfast and luncheon, is a major source of revenue,” Goehler wrote. “According to the AIA hospitality chairman’s comments (copies provided to Veronica and the board) there were numerous problems and not enough volunteers that reflected negatively on the Athenaeum.”

<b>SEVERAL FORMER BOARD MEMBERS</b> said they were disappointed when they learned that Virginia Britton’s ballet school, known as the Alexandria Ballet, would be moving out of the Athenaeum. From 1991 to 2006, Britton’s classes provided a major source of revenue for the nonprofit organization. But after conducting a review of the ballet operation, Riisma concluded that the most popular classes were for younger students. So she created the Athenaeum Ballet and hired a new director to focus on young children. The move was controversial with many former board members, who were harshly critical of the decision.

“I have been shocked by the cavalier attitude of several trustees to the legitimate concerns of Virginia Britton for her professional reputation and financial livelihood drawn from a 15-year relationship with the Athenaeum,” wrote former board member Mary Beth Markey in a June 13 resignation letter. “It seems to be that Virginia Britton has been drummed out of the Athenaeum, and the Alexandria Ballet has been separated from its home, when comity and compromise were utterly possible.”

Other board members say that the Alexandria Ballet’s success had become a burden to the historic building. They said that a smaller scale operation was needed, giving Britton an opportunity to branch out to her current location while the nonprofit organization could use the building for other purposes. Riisma said that the new Athenaeum Ballet will be a better fit for the historic building and its new direction.

“It was a difficult choice, but I think it was the smart thing to do,” Riisma said. “No matter who was here, they would have had to make the same painful step.”

<b>RECENT CHANGES AT</b> the Athenaeum have been challenged by current and former members of the organization. Mary Gaissert Jackson, Britton’s mother and a former director of the nonprofit organization, said that she disagreed with the decision to expel the Alexandria Ballet from the Athenaeum. She also said that she felt Riisma’s performance during the Antiques in Alexandria event gave the organization a bad reputation. Ultimately, she said, she expects the organization to have some difficult days ahead because of its new direction.

“Why blow up what you’ve already got?” Jackson asked. “I think that fallout from all of this will take many years to overcome.”

But Riisma said the smaller-scale ballet operations will provide more time for other events, like lectures and exhibits. In the end, she said she wants the building to be more of a presence in Old Town. In the coming days, she said, Alexandrians can look forward to two Christmas performances, a photography exhibit for Black History Month and a display of architectural drawings from children.

“We really want this building to be a community space,” Riisma said. “It should have a mix of events. And I think our new board will be looking at things from a strategic point of view.”