Questions arise after Department of Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary fires archaeology director - Albuquerque Journal

Questions arise after Department of Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary fires archaeology director

Eric Blinman, right, teaches Mexican students how to take specialized dating samples. Blinman was fired from his job as director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies — a department he worked in since 1988 by the NM Department of Cultural Affairs. (Courtesy photo)

On Feb. 13, Eric Blinman was working on a dig site at the Palace of the Governors when he got a call to meet at the Stewart L. Udall Center for Museum Resources around 4 p.m.

Upon arrival, he was told that he was being let go from his position as the director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies — a department he worked for since 1988.

Blinman is the latest Department of Cultural Affairs director to be let go under the supervision of Cabinet Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego.

Since being appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2019, Garcia y Griego has been at the helm of a revolving door of directors at a number of state-run museums and historic sites.

The DCA oversees eight state-run museums and seven historic sites around the state.

Executive directors of those entities are exempt employees, which means they can be terminated without a reason.

There have been multiple vacancies and at least five directors have been fired or asked to resign.

There have been two executive directors at the National Hispanic Cultural Center who have left since Garcia y Griego was appointed one was terminated and one resigned. Both of them were directors she hired during her tenure. The NHCC is currently being run by interim directors.

Debra Garcia y Griego, DCA Cabinet Secretary

Garcia y Griego has also had director vacancies from five other state-run museums — New Mexico Museum of Art, New Mexico History Museum, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe and New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. Employees in four non-executive director positions have been fired.

Garcia y Griego declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to the DCA, “effective Feb. 13, 2023, Michelle Ensey and Matthew Barbour are serving as co-interim directors of New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies (OAS), concurrent with the departure of the former OAS director, Dr. Eric Blinman.”

The pair will focus on stabilizing operations, assessing the status of, and managing current contracts of OAS, among other functions.

“As a personnel matter, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs cannot discuss the details of Dr. Blinman’s departure,” said Daniel Zilmann, DCA spokesman. “I can confirm that a personnel investigation was conducted and that Dr. Blinman concluded his employment at OAS on Monday, February 13, 2023. As an at-will employee, his termination was followed according to the proper state processes.”

After Blinman’s firing, more than 120 distinguished professionals and concerned citizens sent a letter to Lujan Grisham imploring a hard look at Garcia y Griego’s management style in advance of a possible Senate confirmation hearing.

“The DCA system has in the past often been compared to the excellence of the Smithsonian. New Mexico’s cultural resources are the basis of our populations’ cultural identity and heritage and our international prominence as a heritage tourism destination,” the letter stated. “The current Cabinet secretary seems to not understand that the management of our cultural resources needs a stable work environment and the highest professional standards to thrive.”

On Wednesday, Blinman said he was still in shock over his firing after 35 years in the department.

Blinman said he tried and failed for two years to get the DCA to hire a deputy director. Then he lost a finance position and had to take on those duties too.

“I was doing the job of three people,” Blinman said. “I never got an answer about why the positions were denied to the department. It was over two years I was doing the job of three people in my office.”

In January he made an official complaint to the state Office of Human Resources citing a hostile environment within the DCA. On Feb. 13, just weeks later, he was fired.

“There is reason to question my performance,” he said. “I can’t do the jobs of three people and keep the department running the way it’s supposed to.”

Margie Marino shares a similar story.

Margie Marino talks about the “Da Vinci – The Genius” exhibt on in Feb. 2018. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

As executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, Marino was one month shy of her sixth anniversary before she was forced to retire in October 2021.

She said Blinman’s firing has brought up memories of her departure from the museum.

“I was brought into a room and was given five minutes to decide if I wanted to retire or get fired,” Marino said. “I didn’t react when it happened.”

Marino said she was appointed under Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and loved the work she did at the museum.

She was credited with increasing revenue with “Da Vinci — The Genius,” which pulled in $1.6 million, as well as an increase in attendance in 2018 which was 303,251 for the museum.

When Garcia y Griego was appointed in 2019, the dynamic of DCA changed, she said.

Marino said executive directors were not able to make decisions without Garcia y Griego’s approval.

“We weren’t allowed to raise money or allowed to make a strategic plan without her approval,” Marino said. “Each one of the museum directors were hired for our experience. I have 30 years experience in museums, 25 of those as an executive director. Yet we couldn’t make a decision for what we have experience in.”

At the National Hispanic Cultural Center, three members of the NHCC Board of Directors sent a letter to Garcia y Griego on Jan. 25 asking for an explanation from the secretary on the dismissal of former NHCC director Margie Huerta.

Huerta had been placed on leave in December and ultimately fired on Jan. 25. According to the DCA, it was a personnel matter and the department couldn’t comment.

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