After 34 years of service, Eric Blinman, age 69, had hoped to retire soon and volunteer for the many archaeology programs he’d helped create. World-renowned in his field, he spent decades reconstructing the history of human presence in New Mexico for the Office of Archaeological Studies, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Those plans quickly changed late in the day on Feb. 13, when Blinman was summoned from a dig beneath the floorboards of the Palace of the Governors and summarily fired. Then he was banned from a building he’d raised the funds to build, its locks changed so quickly that staff didn’t have keys to close up at the end of the day.
Colleagues he worked alongside for years are prohibited from speaking to or about him, he says. The DCA cabinet secretary, Debra Garcia y Griego, provided no reason for his dismissal. Worst of all, he can’t see a future volunteering for an agency that now treats him like a pariah. “I’m persona non grata,” he says.
Hundreds of supporters have protested Blinman’s firing to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, demanding that she withdraw her nomination of Garcia y Griego for a second term. The governor has refused. On March 15, she told Searchlight New Mexico that Garcia y Griego would not have a confirmation hearing — but would still keep her job.
“The governor remains fully supportive of the Secretary and her leadership abilities,” Maddy Hayden, the governor’s spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
Garcia y Griego said racism and sexism are driving some of the complaints.
“Most people should be offended by the undertones of racism and sexism that have been emerging within public responses,” she told Searchlight in an email. “When women make personnel decisions, it is often characterized as emotionally driven, vindictive, and controlling. When men do the same thing, it is considered strong and decisive leadership.
“It is time to state the obvious,” she continued: “As high performing organizations manage change, they experience turnover.”
Outcries from all corners
Anywhere else, the firing of an archaeologist might generate little attention. But in a state that honors the past and its guardians, the outcry about Blinman was swift. Within days of his dismissal, more than 120 people — esteemed archaeologists, arts administrators, museum professionals, librarians, donors and, most notably, former DCA employees — signed a letter to Lujan Grisham, imploring her to withdraw Garcia y Griego’s nomination. The number of signatories has since reached 225.
Additional protesters sent letters to the Senate Rules Committee. A spate of news stories followed. And the ranks of critics have only swelled in the weeks since.
Blinman’s firing has become a clarion call for all of DCA’s exiles — experts in their fields who say they resigned out of frustration, retired early or were terminated if they expressed views that ran counter to the cabinet secretary or other leadership. Writ large, the event sheds light on the high cost of churn.
The department manages the largest state-sponsored museum system in the nation, as well as New Mexico’s historic sites, state library system and collections of public art. Its annual budget is approximately $46 million. From the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the bookmobile program to the Museum of New Mexico Press and the Lincoln Historic Site — Billy the Kid’s stomping grounds — all fall under the purview of the Byzantine agency.
Art historians, botanists, archivists, educators and leading archeologists like Blinman are among DCA’s 435 employees. Of the more than 20 current and former DCA staff, donors and board members interviewed by Searchlight, all described a culture of retaliation and micromanagement under the leadership of Garcia y Griego.
“One of my great frustrations was the punitive nature of what she did,” Blinman says. Since his firing, “People can’t talk to me. I can’t go into the building. Even the interim directors are not allowed to ask me questions.”
A $50,000 gift on hold
The hostile work culture described by critics isn’t merely a personnel problem. The churn at DCA could also harm some of the state’s most treasured assets and biggest tourist draws. Museums that lack leadership can face issues with accreditation, eroding the trust of donors and ultimately impacting philanthropy and the public, said Tisa Gabriel, who served a wide variety of positions in the agency over a 27-year tenure.
One donor, Mary Anne Larsen, said she is walking back a promised gift of $50,000 from a nonprofit to aid Native American education programs at the Office of Archaeological Studies, after hearing of the turmoil in DCA.
Complaints about the department have proved costly in other ways. In December 2022, DCA settled three discrimination charges that employees made against the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, a division of DCA. The action resulted in three settlements totaling $150,000. A fourth discrimination complaint against DCA was settled for $35,000 in October 2022, the state’s Sunshine Portal shows.
“Another four years of her style of management will only create increased low morale, continued fear among employees, and staff, lack of want or interest among board members, loss of credibility, costly complaints, and potential lawsuits,” wrote Viola Martinez in one of the letters to the Senate. A former member of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science board of trustees, Martinez described the cabinet secretary’s style as “my way or the highway.”
During Garcia y Griego’s tenure, more than a dozen top-level staff have resigned, retired or were fired, according to the letter to the governor. The list includes directors at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, New Mexico Museum of Art, New Mexico History Museum, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum and New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Daniel Zillmann, DCA spokesperson, objected strongly to the criticisms. “Claims that DCA suffers a lack of leadership and expertise are false and, further, disrespectful of the impressive leadership team assembled by the Cabinet Secretary,” he said in an emailed statement. “The Secretary has never tolerated, nor created a hostile work environment and has ensured that staff are held accountable for their actions and for performing their jobs.”
‘Look for new leadership’
Months before Eric Blinman was fired, at least three former DCA employees sent letters to Lujan Grisham, urging her to look for new leadership.
“Honestly,” wrote Melanie LaBorwit, “the gems that are our state cultural resources, the state museum system and all the historic sites, have not been flourishing at all, but floundering.” The governor now had a prime opportunity, she offered, to address “problems that have festered in DCA for too long.”
Alana McGrattan, the former Tribal Libraries Program Coordinator, shared similar sentiments. There was “a lack of vision and leadership” under Garcia y Griego, she wrote, and she urged the governor to “consider a replacement.”
Blinman, for his part, had already lodged a hostile workplace complaint against Garcia y Griego in April 2022. He was working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, he recalled, and his efforts to hire a new deputy director and financial staff had been rebuffed. That same month, he received a performance evaluation stating that his “failure to invoice customers” had resulted in a negative audit finding the year prior.
Much of Blinman’s work revolved around raising the capital to run his own department. Unlike most work in the state, which is funded by taxpayer dollars, his job, among dozens of other things, required raising money through donations, grants and other sources. He said his operating budget, ranging from $600,000 to $900,000, covered salaries for 10 staffers and funded research and education programs in public and tribal schools, local libraries, universities, historic sites and museums.
But like all 20 at-will, “governor exempt” DCA employees, he was in a precarious position: He could be fired at any time, without cause and without mediation. (Disclosure: The reporter for this story was forced to resign while working for a state agency. See below.)
‘Open season on directors’
Nine months after Blinman lodged his complaint, the state’s Risk Management Division hired a private attorney to conduct a personnel investigation. Blinman shared his concerns with the attorney. Three weeks later, he was fired.
“It was open season on directors,” said Margie Marino, the former executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Appointed to that role in 2015 when a national search brought her from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, she said she was forced to go on unemployment after the cabinet secretary told her, point blank, “retire or get fired” in October 2021.
Marino said one of the greatest challenges on the job was Garcia y Griego’s department-wide reorganization, a reshuffling that made it near-impossible to speak directly with the secretary or make decisions.
“I had maybe 20 minutes of direct conversation with her in my entire tenure,” Marino said.
Frustration and fear
Five people told Searchlight that they felt so constrained at DCA that they resigned or took early retirement out of frustration or fear. One said he felt “blacklisted” after making a formal complaint about workplace conditions.
Jenice Gharib, a former DCA employee, resigned from her position at New Mexico Arts, a division of DCA, after a 13-year tenure. She described being bullied by Garcia y Griego and said the cabinet secretary “knowingly delayed signing contracts” that would provide timely funding to arts organizations and grantees, who needed the money to survive.
Gharib gave three weeks’ notice in August 2021. A week before her last day, she was escorted out.
“The people who are in that cadre of being escorted out,” she said, “are all people who are professional and stood up and have integrity.”
The author of this story is a former state employee who won a whistleblower lawsuit against the New Mexico Tourism Department in 2021, after a retaliatory firing. An editor at New Mexico Magazine, Guzmán was wrongfully forced to resign after she protested an act of censorship at the publication, a jury found.