HBO CEO named Mt. Vernon CEO; A Step Backwards IMHO

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Today, Curtis G. Viebranz becomes the president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Unfortunately, this decision by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is a step backward for its mission, history, education, preservation, and ironically, women, too.  Viebranz succeeds James C. Rees III, who retired in June.  Here’s an excerpt from the official announcement:

Viebranz brings to Mount Vernon more than twenty years of experience at major multinational Internet and cable enterprises, including a successful tenure as president of HBO International, the global arm of Time Warner’s Home Box Office unit. Prior to that, as Time Warner turned its attention to digital distribution strategies, Viebranz was tapped to serve as the first president of Time Inc. Multimedia. During his seventeen-year career at Time Warner and its predecessor company, Time Inc., Viebranz built an impressive resume, also serving as president of Time Inc. Europe and HBO Video.

After departing Time Warner, Viebranz helped to launch and grow several media-related start-ups, including Olé Communications, the Latin American partner of HBO, A&E and E! Entertainment, and TACODA, Inc., a digital advertising network. He joined AOL in 2007 following its acquisition of TACODA and served as president of Platform A, overseeing advertising sales and strategy for all of AOL’s owned and operated sites. He was a co-founder and most recently served as chairman of Korrelate, Inc., a firm that provides insights and analytics on web advertising.

Born in Boston, raised in Larchmont, New York, and currently residing in Chester, New Jersey, Viebranz, 59, holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MBA from Harvard University. He and his wife, Cissy, will be relocating to Mount Vernon. They have two daughters away at college, Lillie Belle, 19, and Story, 18; and a son, Angus, 17, at boarding school.

I haven’t met Viebranz nor am aware of other candidates for the position (or even who’s on the search committee), but considering that Mt. Vernon is one of the most popular and significant historic sites in America, was one of the first historic house museums in the United States, and promotes itself as a national model for preservation and interpretation, I’m quite disappointed in the Ladies’ selection of Curtis Viebranz.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union was part of the reform movements of the mid-19th century and provided one of the few national leadership opportunities for women in the era long before the vote.  This nascent woman’s organization crossed political and sectional boundaries on the eve of the Civil War and united Americans around a cause they could all agree on, which allowed it to acquire Mt. Vernon in 1858 and open it to the public.  Those were groundbreaking, innovative moves for women but it’s been downhill since then.  Its founder, Ann Pamela Cunningham, was the first and last woman to lead the organization–the succeeding nine presidents have all been men.  Is it really possible that no woman in the United States today is willing and able to lead this historic woman’s organization?  What does this decision say to women when one of the nation’s leading cultural organizations that’s exclusively composed of women cannot find one of their own to lead them since 1858?  Do they believe that women are the weaker sex?

Secondly, this nationally significant historic site is now led by someone who has no experience in historic preservation and has little knowledge of American history.  His expertise is in television and advertising.  Again, what does this decision say about the value of history, education, and preservation?  It suggests that these skills have no place in the executive suite–only MBAs need apply.  But even worse, it suggests a board that’s forgotten about its non-profit mission and is asleep at the wheel, which will have consequences long after their terms as Regents have ended (yes, the boardmembers are anachronistically called Regents).  How could they have ignored the crisis occurring about this very same issue one hundred miles away at the University of Virginia?  IMHO, it looks like it’s not only going to be a rocky ride, but they’re headed in the wrong direction.

31 thoughts on “HBO CEO named Mt. Vernon CEO; A Step Backwards IMHO

  1. Monta Lee Dakin

    I think just the opposite. Mr. Viebranz may be just the one to suceed James Reese, who had an incredibly successful tenure as MVLA’s director. I don’t know Curtis and I certainly don’t have Larry Sebato’s crystal ball. But I do know that George Washington is not as identifiable today as he was when I worked at MVLA many years ago. I see this alot out here in the west where I now live. Maybe it’s because I come from Virginia that I find this so incredulous; but I was shocked to find that college age students could not identify the picture of Mount Vernon that hangs in my house as George Washington’s house. Nor could they name it. Maybe it’s time for MVLA to have someone at the helm with a strong media background. The museum has long since been led by a female regent and male director. It’s a pairing that has worked. Is it time for a change? Sure, why not. But don’t be fooled: the Regent is a powerful force at that site. And Jim laid a very strong foundation which his successor will not be able to change easily. And comments such as yours should put Curtis on notice that the museum community is watcing what he does with one of America’s greatest icons.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Changing things around, thinking outside the box, getting a new perspective are all good attributes for organizations as they revitalize themselves, but somehow, if I’m going into surgery, traveling in a plane, or eating sushi, I prefer to have someone with the right skills and experience on hand. If you want to experiment, I recommend the same advice you find on cleaning solutions: “first test on a small inconspicuous spot”.

      I’m not sure if this will change your mind, but I just confirmed that the architectural conservation department (the folks who handle historic preservation at Mt. Vernon) was eliminated and its head, Dr. Dennis Pogue, the Vice President of Preservation and a 25-year employee, was dismissed. Archaeology also reports to Pogue, but I understand they have not been affected. I don’t know Pogue but let’s assume the worst and that he was a rascal, incompetent, and mean, so he needed to go–but usually a new CEO needs to have some time to make the decision and it typically isn’t accompanied by the elimination of a major department. It seems suspicious to me, especially when I hear rumors that other senior staff have departed. So if he wasn’t a rascal, incompetent, or mean, why was he dismissed? Secondly, to make a major decision like this on the CEO’s first day on the job without announcing how it fits into existing strategic plan or new organizational direction shows a lack of leadership and poor management–what are staff, members, and donors going to think? A much better practice is to wait at least a couple months to fully understand the daily operations and become familiar with your staff’s strengths and weaknesses before making major changes like this. Just to be fair and get the other perspective, I did contact Mt. Vernon to see if they had a statement and they replied that they would not comment on personnel issues.

      Ironically, the Washington Post ran a story just a couple weeks ago about Mt. Vernon’s significant role as the birthplace of historic preservation in the U.S.–with Dennis Pogue as the spokesperson ( They’d probably run a different story today.


      1. Laurie

        That certainly seems to be sending a message that preservation is no longer central to the mission. It’s a sad day for Mount Vernon, and for those who care about George Washington’s legacy, when such a highly-regarded professional department, one that brought luster to MVLA as model stewards, is cast aside.


      2. Gardiner Hallock

        I worked for Dennis at Mount Vernon and he was an outstanding Director of Preservation. I sincerely hope that this isn’t true.


      3. Carter

        Mount Vernon’s Mission Statement

        The mission of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is to preserve, restore and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.


  2. Carter

    I am wondering if Mr. Viebranz’s hiring isn’t a victory for the mentality behind Rector Helen Dragas’s attempt to dump President Sullivan at the University. Is this the assuming of museum leadership by the hedge fund managers and business moguls? If is does, where does this leave all of the museum studies programs cranking out museum studies degrees?


    1. John

      Since you bring up Boards of Visitors…. Mount Vernon is held by the Association under a charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia – a safeguard established at MLVA’s time of incorporation in the 1850s. The governor appoints a board of visitors. Excerpt from code: “There shall be a board of visitors for Mount Vernon . . . to be appointed and commissioned by the Governor . . . . The board of visitors of Mount Vernon shall have the ordinary powers of a board of visitors, whose duty shall be to visit that place and examine and faithfully report to the Governor all the proceedings of the association touching Mount Vernon and the manner in which they comply or fail to comply with this act and other laws of the land.” Perhaps it’s time for the board of visitors to ‘examine’ the situation. They might be reminded that Gov. McDonnell’s family lived in the MV neighborhood and that his late mother, Emma, was one of the finest front line interpreters MV has known.


  3. Laurie

    Hats off to you, Max, for having the courage to call out the elephant in the proverbial living room. A huge cultural shift is surely happening, and only time will tell whether for-profit business practices will revitalize nonprofit institutions, and whether they can do so without sacrificing the integrity of their chartered missions of preservation, heritage and education. But, as Carter notes, we also need to seize this opportunity to take a hard look at how and why professional practitioners lost the confidence of their governing bodies.


  4. Rob

    I have heard there were some major staff shake ups over the past week and some big changes in their structure. That scares me more than the new Director. I hope cooler heads will prevail and the right thing for Mount Vernon and its preservation will win out in the end.


  5. Pat

    “Nothing is a greater stranger to my breast, or a sin that my soul more abhors, than that black and detestable one, ingratitude.”

    GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Governor Dinwiddie, May 29, 1754

    I have known Dr. Pogue since long before he earned his Phd. He is not only well respected in Mid-Atlantic historic archaeology and anthropology but has also a great mentor to up
    and coming practitioners and scholars in the field. To dismiss him, and apparently most of his division, after the great work he guided to fruition during his quarter-century guardianship of the site’s historic preservation mission casts a pall over the future of Mt. Vernon and that mission.
    Show biz folk shepherding our precious heritage? … How long before they are back to wooden teeth and chopping down cherry trees?
    A pox upon them.


  6. Sydney

    Just to clarify – Dennis Pogue was not fired by the new president. He was dismissed by the regents less than 24 hours before turning over the helm to the new president, leaving him to deal with the fallout and take the blame.


  7. I.Adler

    Come on, let’s not make this a feminist issue. I’m a woman, and I think this appointment is fantastic. History is so often viewed as fuddy duddy and lame – how exciting for the field to have someone creative representing it! Do you know his credentials? Perhaps he does have (albeit, likely long ago) experience in history or preservation. I had Dennis Pogue as an adjunct about five years ago. He was a great professor, and it’s unfortunate that these changes have put him out of a job, but this is a big step forward in bringing history into the popular consciousness. In any case, let’s not assume that just because this guy works in TV, he’ll destroy the historic fabric of Mount Vernon.


  8. Beth

    Big step forward? To remove the PRESERVATION department at the most visited historic house in the United States? What is the point of making history “fun” and “exciting” if it’s poorly researched, historically inaccurate, and anachronistic? Please. We have the History Channel for that.


  9. Arlyn Danielson

    I am not sure what to think about Mr. Viebranz alleged leadership skills for a major house museum, but I am disgusted at how the Ladies’ Association has utterly failed to find a qualified woman to lead that organization- over the past century or so. I don’t know how else to understand this failure other than think that these ladies have some type of inferiority complex toward other women and themselves.


  10. Alex

    I’ve seen this happen at other house museums. Often these types of new directors, empowered by boards spend lavishly and fail to adopt funding streams to support their spending. That leaves subsequent directors and boards to clean up the mess. The press release says so much about the new library and so little about the historic site it’s obvious where the spending and efforts are heading under the direction of that board. I’m reminded of what happened at the Mark Twain House, which also spent lavishly only to find in lean times there was no funding stream to support the new facilities.


  11. Erin Adams

    If we give MVLA credit for understanding their site’s needs, and have made the most prudent decisions in hiring a TV executive as Executive Director, and folding the preservation department, the problem still remains that Mt. Vernon is the most visited historic house museum in America. They can reasonably assume on receiving over 1 million visitors per year. One million visitors is two million feet walking and two million hands touching. What other steps have the put into place to address the ongoing preservation needs? Can we hope that they have discovered a new and different way to handle the same need?


  12. Bushrod

    The question I have about recent developments at Mount Vernon is: Now that Dr. Pogue, who has an excellent reputation within the historic preservation community, has been axed, what is the institution’s plan to ensure that this internationally significant historic property will continue to be a model of research, stewardship and preservation?


  13. Erik Ledbetter

    I don’t reflexively reject mid-career or late career field changes. People should be able to apply their talents to new causes. The trouble is not recuiting preservation or museum EDs from outside the field per se–it’s recruiting EDs who don’t share or actively hold in contempt the core values and ethics of the institution. And that is a problem that usually begins with putting a few too many people on the board whose only moral language is Wall Street sociopathy.


  14. John H. Verrill

    I like to take a wait and see approach, but am distressed that the preservation department has been eliminated. Let’s hope the direction that is taken will not be as draconian as some of the respondents to this blog predict. Big time MBA’s can bring stability to an organization’s business model, my hope and wish for Mount Vernon.


  15. Sarah

    While I agree that is is extremely sad that no woman has led Mount Vernon since Ms. Cunningham, I don’t think it is fair to lay all the blame on the MVLA. This is a field-wide problem. In a field that is made up of a majority of women, very few women are found in leadership positions. What are AAM and AASLH doing to encourage women leaders? Are boards making it easier for women to balance work and family?

    Also, MBAs are probably good degrees to have when leading major institutions. The issue here is we need to make them easier to obtain for people with history/museum studies/preservation backgrounds. That way, institutions looking to hire an MBA won’t be forced to hire a TV exec with an “interest in history.” They can actually hire someone with real skills both in the museum field and in the business world.


  16. Barbara Campagna

    I’m very sorry to hear about Dennis Pogue’s leaving so unceremoniously. Dennis is well regarded throughout the preservation, architecture and archaeology fields. If someone like Dennis is not respected by the new marketing brand of site CEOs that are suddenly popping up around the country, then what hope is there for the rest of us and our sites? Shame on Mt. Vernon and the Ladies. I truly fear for MV’s future authenticity and credibility.


  17. watchful eye

    I wish both Pogue and Mount Vernon well, and I really hope this is not indicative or a larger trend in preservation to put inconvenient scholars or their scholarship aside in order to funnel resources to new marketing strategies . Preservation requires taking the long view and putting the best interests of the site first. We should keep a watchful eye on the direction Mount Vernon takes from here on.


  18. Sandra

    Seems like a bad time to be a preservationist – too many being eliminated (one way or another) all at once, and the resulting glut of them on the job market will make it hard to find a job anywhere.


  19. Carter

    These posts all seem to be suggesting – whether intentionally or not – the decline of historic preservation as we know it, and the triumph of the forces of the modern financial markets.This suggests many questions. Is preservation an ailing patient that the MBA ascendency is about to pull the plug on? Is true and real knowledge of the built past of America no longer considered to be important? Is the future of historic architecture a world of titilating presentation where the major decisions are made by box office appeal? Are we heading into a world were immediacy trumps reflection and a search for the truth? I could go on forever but….. you get what I am suggesting!


  20. Julia A. King

    Not sure what to think, given how mum the word out of Mount Vernon has been (at least in my neck of the woods). I get that a portion of it is a personnel issue and mum-ness might be in order there, but eliminating the preservation department is a much broader issue. This is especially the case given that the site is a non-profit, and has a fiduciary responsibility to all of us as citizens in exchange for that non-profit status. Releasing Dr. Pogue and eliminating the preservation department (if the latter is true) in effect wipes out 25 years of institutional memory at a time when new methods and technological advances in the preservation sciences have (in that quarter century) transformed how we know and interpret the past. Woe to any new director who must hit the ground without this memory.


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