As the Kern County Museum celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, the man responsible for leading the history institution into the future has resigned.
Roger Perez, executive director since late 2012, will be paid by the nonprofit foundation that runs the museum through March 23, per his contract. However, he stepped down from day-to-day operations last week, said Bob Lerude, director of the Kern County Parks and Recreation Department and chairman of the board that oversees the county-owned museum.
“I don’t think (his resignation) is going to impede the anniversary plans,” Lerude said Tuesday. “Roger is still available by phone and email and provides information for us.”
Perez, 43, decided to leave the museum, and his $90,000-a-year salary, to return to his former career in marketing. He has no job offers but is considering starting his own marketing and consulting company.
“I love the museum, for what it is and what it can be,” Perez said Wednesday. “I have felt the most comfortable there when we’re on a good track and I have something to sell. But when it comes to other parts — government and construction projects — that’s outside my wheelhouse.”
Capital projects have monopolized much of Perez’s time at the museum, he said. This year alone, the museum will build a research center, convert the complex’s main structure into an interactive orientation area to welcome visitors, and restore the boyhood home of country music star Merle Haggard. Those projects and others are in addition to ongoing maintenance of the dozens of historic buildings and other artifacts at the museum’s 16-acre Pioneer Village.
“In hindsight, I would have fought to spread (the projects) out a little further,” Perez said. “But you can do them now or you can do them later. Once they get through these, it will be time to settle into, ‘OK, now be the museum.’”
What being a museum means to Perez is focusing on local history and education and improving programming to encourage repeat visits.
“You give them something that is special because it’s always about the money at a museum, and general admission alone doesn’t cut it.”
County funding, rental revenue and memberships account for most of the museum’s annual operating budget of about $1 million, said Lerude, who noted that the goal is for the museum to become entirely self-sufficient.
Perez was hired during a period of tremendous change at the museum, which was operated for several years by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, under an agreement with the county. In 2011, KCSOS opted to return control of the museum to the county, and the longtime director left soon after, replaced by a New Mexico museum administrator whose tenure lasted less than a year. Perez took over in November 2012.
“When they hired me, they were coming off a relatively bad situation and it was a transition, so it was, ‘Where do we go next?’ Hiring a guy with marketing was key in the beginning because it was all about getting the word out. And I think we did that.
“As we moved forward into the next 10 years, that was when it became about construction management or development or fundraising. I think they need somebody maybe even more diverse. My background is incredibly specific.”
Lerude said the board will replace Perez; director Kay Pitts is heading up the search.
“I can’t speak for all the board members,” Lerude said, “but we were happy with Roger. We still need somebody who can run events over there. We don't have a huge staff, and board members are quite involved. That focus is still the same. The only thing that’s a little different is a greater focus on historical education.”