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.