Four years after taking over the helm of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, A. Skipp Sanders will step down Jan. 30 as the institution's director.
A national search has been launched for his successor.
"This is the third time that I've retired," joked Sanders, 73. He had previously spent 28 years working for the Maryland State Department of Education, where he rose to second in command. After leaving the state post, he worked two years as associate superintendent for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
"I'm excited by where the museum is going," Sanders said. "In the past, our museum hasn't always been as relevant as we could have been. We haven't always done as a good a job as we might have of joining African-American history to our present and future. But with our new community space, Lewis Now, and with the appointment of Charles Bethea as chief curator, that's starting to change."
Sanders began to guide the Lewis in September 2011, during a difficult time at the museum. A spate of layoffs had sent shock waves through the close-knit community of Baltimore's African-American arts leaders. Attendance was down. The museum consistently failed to meet a state requirement that it generate $2 million, or half of its annual budget, in privately raised revenue. Attendance is still a problem for the Lewis. In the most recent fiscal year, 33,000 people came through the museum's doors, a drop of about a third from its all-time high of more than 50,000 visitors.
But, in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the Lewis met its state match for the first time, though it fell short again last year when attendance declined for downtown attractions in the wake of riots following the death of Freddie Gray.
One of the most popular exhibits during Sanders' tenure was a selection from the Kinsey Collection of artifacts chronicling African-American history for 400 years that opened in the fall of 2013. This past summer, the Lewis made news when it mounted Devin Allen's first solo show. Allen is the self-taught Baltimore photographer whose image of the Freddie Gray unrest made the cover of Time magazine.
Leslie King-Hammond, chairwoman of the Lewis' board of directors, wrote in a news release that Sanders "has set the museum on a course for success. As a leader, he is a gracious humanitarian. His style elicits the very best out of each person. He led the staff with compassion, patience, and an integrity that was compelling and inspired."
Those who know Sanders were shocked when the soft-spoken administrator ended up in a public dispute with Baltimore civil rights veteran Helena Hicks. Hicks, then 80, was denied entrance to the museum in October 2014 after she objected vehemently to the presence of Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther leader and convicted murderer, on a panel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Sanders said he has attempted to apologize to Hicks.
"For me, the issue was that I wanted everyone on the panel to be treated with tolerance and respect," he said.
Last fall, Sanders helped the Lewis achieve two milestones. Bethea was hired to fill the long-vacant position of museum curator. And the museum celebrated its 10-year anniversary in November with a sold-out gala featuring the acclaimed pianist and composer Ellis Marsalis.
Sanders said he realized then that the museum was ready for a change in leadership. "Particularly given what's happening in the city and the country over the last year, the timing just seemed right," he said.
"A museum should be the venue for some of the most sensitive and important discussions that we have as a society about what keeps us apart, and what brings us together."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this story