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A Copley Newspaper
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Museum names new director
Head of Atlanta History Center to take over for Smith

Published Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Rick Beard, former chief operating officer of the New-York Historical Society and executive director of the Atlanta History Center, has been named the new director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity," Beard said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "What has been accomplished, first in creating the museum and then in the public's incredible reaction, has been quite remarkable. In my experience, I've seen nothing that has matched its success."

Beard, 59, replaces Richard Norton Smith, who resigned in March and is a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Illinois state historian Tom Schwartz has been interim director and had hoped to be named to the position permanently. He will continue as state historian when Beard begins his job in November, according to library and museum spokeswoman Jill Burwitz.

Like Smith, Beard also will head the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the library and museum's private fundraising arm.

Beard will be paid $150,000 a year as the library and museum director, the same salary Smith received. Smith also got roughly the same salary as head of the foundation. Negotiations between Beard and the foundation are ongoing, according to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office, which will announce Beard's appointment today.

According to various sources, Beard is considered an able administrator, fundraiser and scholar. He currently heads a nationwide effort to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War between 2011 and 2015, a responsibility he will keep when he moves to Springfield.While he said not to expect many changes when he arrives, the museum faces plenty of challenges.

"I'm not sure (you're) going to see anything different," Beard said. "But the whole institution is dealing with a sigh of collective relief after the opening (in April 2005). There will be a number of challenges - taking it to the next level, maintaining momentum, building on it - and the (Lincoln) bicentennial to take advantage of and how we'll carve out of piece of that.

"I'm also very committed to keeping momentum on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The next eight or nine years are Mr. Lincoln's years."

Among his previous positions, Beard has been associate director of the Museum of the City of New York, associate director of the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., coordinator of the Yale University Center for American Art and Material Culture and research historian for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

For the past two years, Beard has done consulting for museums and historical societies. He is working on a book about presidential campaigns and has written many articles about social, political and medical history.

Beard, who lives in Atlanta, has a doctorate in American Studies from Emory University. He is credited with turning around the Atlanta History Center, where he created a museum fellowship program for minority college students. Before he took over the center, it was considered "a private club for Buckhead blue bloods," according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"Beard led the center's growth from a reception hall and a couple historic buildings to an educational institution with a 117,000-square-foot museum that specializes in Southern history and culture," the newspaper wrote when Beard left the center in 2002 after 10 years on the job.

"Rick Beard is a gifted, imaginative and impressive leader in the history field," said Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian and co-chair of the United States Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. "He has a gift for making history come alive, not only for historians but the public as well."

Beard will sit on the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, according to the governor's office.

Beard has not been without controversy. While he was in Atlanta, the History Center had the opportunity to host "Without Sanctuary," a powerful photography exhibit documenting lynchings in U.S. history. Eventually, the collection owner found another venue when disagreements arose about how the exhibit should be presented.

Also, according to a 2004 New York Times article, Beard seems to have been dismissed from his New-York Historical Society post when the organization's new board shifted its focus on New York City history to national history. According to Beard, he was "the first, but by no means the last" of many society employees who lost their jobs during the transition.

Beard's wife, Susan, operates musicalamerica.com, an online news source for the performing-arts industry. She also writes freelance articles for The New York Times, the Journal-Constitution and other publications. They have a 13-year-old daughter, Nora.

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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