Does SLO History Center lean too far left? Complaints roll in after they raise the pride flag

San Luis Obispo’s first free library, the Carnegie Library, is the home to the History Center.
San Luis Obispo’s first free library, the Carnegie Library, is the home to the History Center. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A pride flag being flown by the county’s History Center was stolen two weeks ago, and now the museum is fighting accusations it is politically and socially biased.

The vandalism came during a tumultuous few weeks for the History Center, the county’s most influential history organization.

The center is transitioning after the departure of its executive director, Eva Fina, who resigned in late June to pursue personal history projects.

The organization also has faced criticisms that it’s too politically progressive and shouldn’t be partnering with the Central Coast Queer Archive Project, which began last January and involves a community-based, volunteer effort documenting LGBTQ people’s Central Coast experiences.

“Some prominent people with some involvement with the History Center voiced their complaints about raising the pride flag,” Fina said. “We don’t know who stole the flag during pride weekend or why, but we received complaints last year when we raised the pride flag around the same time (SLO Mayor) Heidi Harmon had her pride flag burned.”

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This year’s flag vandalism also coincides with complaints about the center’s role when it comes to pride celebration.

The pride flag, which featured the traditional rainbow design, was ripped off of a display at the nonprofit museum located at 696 Monterey St. between July 6-8, during the city’s annual pride celebration.

No suspects in the flag vandalism have been identified, and the organization chose not to file a police report, said Bill McCarthy, the president of the History Center’s Board of Directors.

McCarthy told The Tribune the organization is non-partisan and strives to be inclusive.

“Our mission is to archive history and preserve it for future generations,” McCarthy said. “We flew a pride banner, not because we’re politically or socially minded, but to partner with people in our community who are part of the county’s culture.”

Controversy over political perception

McCarthy said he’s in the process of reaching out to local county supervisors to discuss negative reactions to the center’s involvement with the Queer Archive project, the flag theft and the organization as a whole.

Libertarian activist Kevin P. Rice, who was working out of town when the flag was taken, told The Tribune he believes the organization should not have raised the pride flag because it receives county funds and operates on city-owned land.

“This is a political, social issue more than an undertaking of the History Center,” Rice said. “It’s a gray area, but it appears political to me that the (pride) flag is raised on its own without an accompanying exhibit to explain why. If they’d hung up a communist flag without any display right next to it to explain, how would that look? Why not hang a Russian flag?”

Rice previously has called for the center to lose funding, a stance center officials disagree with.

McCarthy said three of the History Center’s 15 board members are members of the SLO County Progressives, but a Trump supporter recently served on the board, and former conservative Sen. Sam Blakeslee is a board member.

“The Queer Archive Project caused some people to be upset,” McCarthy said. “We aren’t political, and the members of our board are diverse. Religion, political standing or occupation doesn’t matter.”

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Bill McCarthy, former San Luis Obispo County History Center board president. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

County supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton comment

The History Center receives about $100,000 per year from the county to help fund its operations, and the city assesses a nominal fee for its use of the city-owned museum property.

The nonprofit’s annual budget ranges from $250,000 to $350,000. The rest of its money comes from private donations and earned income from events and activities, McCarthy said.

“The History Center has always been very important to me,” County Supervisor Debbie Arnold said. “We have a great relationship with the center. I was surprised as anyone to hear of concerns. Every board has their ups and downs, and it’s not abnormal to go through some turmoil (related to the accusations of political bias).”

Supervisor Lynn Compton said she didn’t know anything about the recent controversy, but said “I don’t want an organization that takes county money to be either left or right wing. It should be neutral.”

Compton has not seen anything from the center that has offended her, however she said she would need to look into the situation further to formulate an opinion.

“I can say that it bothers me when an artist or organization takes public funds and then does some kind of work that denigrates Christianity in some way,” Compton said. “That bothers me as a Christian.”

Former History Center executive director Eva Fina here holds a framed photo of Louisiana Clayton Dart, who served as curator of the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society from 1956 to 1980. Fina resigned in late June 2018. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Resignation of executive director

Fina said the Pride-related project and flag-hanging aligned with a call in early 2017 for LGBTQ inclusivity by the American Association of States and Local History.

Fina led the center for five years and said she was particularly proud of the work on the Queer Archive Project as well as another exhibit on internment of local Japanese-Americans during World War II, among other work.

Her resignation has nothing to do with any political controversy, but rather a desire to focus on projects rather than administration, she said.

Fina, who earned a salary of $58,000, will pursue writing two books, including one related to Hearst Castle’s history. She has started a for-profit, history-related tour, media and event company called SecretSLO.

“She has really worked her tail off, and we’re really sorry to lose her after five years of running the center almost by herself,” McCarthy said. “She has been exceptional at building our user base, donor base, and she did a remarkably good job.”

San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee Chair James Papp said “Eva’s forte at the History Center was raising substantial funding support by showing how people’s history is at the core of their lives.”

Thomas Kessler, a part-time center employee, will take on the interim executive director role while the organization conducts a national search for a new leader, McCarthy said.

This story and headline has been updated with additional information.

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib