Williams is the latest of a string of senior executives to depart the struggling institution that last August began exploring the sale of its Pennsylvania Avenue building or closing entirely. The review was launched by the Freedom Forum, the museum’s primary benefactor, which has spent more than $500 million on the museum in the past 20 years. President and chief executive Jeffrey Herbst stepped down as the review was announced, ending his two-year tenure.
Williams, a Tennessee native who has been the Newseum’s chief operating officer since 2012 and president and COO since March, said his decision was not related to those struggles.
“It’s an amazing intersection of my skills and abilities in museums and the travel industry and my fascination with west Tennessee culture and heritage,” Williams, 55, said about Discovery Park of America, a 50-acre museum and park. Williams will succeed retiring president and chief executive James Rippy.
Newseum Vice President of Exhibits Carrie Christoffersen will become senior vice president and Newseum executive director when Williams leaves Oct. 19. Christoffersen has worked at the Newseum for two decades.
Williams’s resignation comes two weeks after the Newseum was widely criticized for selling “You are very fake news” T-shirts and other merchandise in its gift shop and online that many journalists perceived as supporting ongoing attacks on the media. A spokeswoman initially defended the merchandise, saying the museum is nonpartisan and that “we are champions not only of a free press but also of free speech.” Days later, the museum issued an apology and removed the items.
Williams’s departure is not connected to those problems, officials said.
“There’s absolutely no connection,” said Freedom Forum’s chairwoman and CEO Jan Neuharth, who has served as the museum’s CEO since Herbst left. “We are very sorry to see Scott go. He’s been a tremendous, valuable part of our organization. We’re happy for the opportunity for him.”
The museum’s finances have been shaky since 2008, when it took on $300 million in debt to open the splashy 250,000-square-foot steel and glass building between the Capitol and the White House. The operation has posted an annual deficit every year since, despite a large subsidy from the Freedom Forum. The Newseum charges almost $25 for entry, making it one of the most expensive attractions in a city that boasts of many free cultural institutions. Attendance was up slightly to 850,000 last year, but that number is a fraction of the visitors recorded at Washington’s most popular museums.
The organization considered a risky strategy of selling shares in its building several years ago. In February, officials met a top D.C. real estate firm about its options, which include leasing part of the building, as well as selling it and moving to another location. Neuharth said no decision has been reached.
“We said it would be a long-term process, and that continues to be true. We are exploring all options regarding the building. We have no news there,” she said. “We’re looking toward the future and continuing to explore our options. That has not changed from a year ago.”