With $160M new TN museum coming, boards deal with controversies

The Tennessee State Museum is dealing with controversies ranging from a former employee’s alleged theft of $62,000 to the removal of two foundation board members who questioned several of the museum’s acquisitions procedures, reports Richard Locker.

The museum has two boards — one an oversight board that will receive $120 million under Gov. Bill Haslam’s current state budget and the other a foundation board will be involved in trying to raise $40 million in private money to go with the taxpayer funds toward construction of a new museum.

When the oversight board holds its quarterly meeting Monday, members will get their first briefing on plans for the new structure and, presumably, about the fundraising drive. Details of the campaign have not been publicly unveiled, but former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the board since its creation in 2010, says the drive should be transparent, with contributions made public.

Ashe, who has also raised questions about the museum’s operations during his tenure, asked that a presentation on the new museum be added to Monday’s agenda after an earlier draft made no mention of it. An update by the governor’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, was added.

…The private fundraising drive will launch without two veteran members of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation board who were not renominated for new terms last month: private-investment banker Charles Cook and lawyer Henry Walker, both of Nashville. Cook was also a member of the oversight board, but he was ineligible for reappointment when his term ended June 30.

In 2013, at Cook’s request, Walker reviewed a series of $1,000-or-more purchases of art and artifacts by museum staff and concluded, according to his written report, that up to 11 purchases over a 10-month period appeared to violate one or more of the museum’s acquisition policies, including lack of prior approval by a three-person committee and lack of “justification letters,” both of which are required for a purchase of $1,000 or more.

Cook also wrote a December 2013 memo to the museum’s executive director, Lois Riggins-Ezzell, questioning whether the staff’s purchase of a painting by a Nashville artist who served on the governor’s New Museum Task Force might have violated the museum’s code of ethics and the acquisition policy.

…Asked whether she expressed an opinion about Cook and Walker, Ezzell said, “I can’t recall everything that was said, but if I was asked, I think they were critical — consistently critical.

“I had a board that believed in this museum, believed in its vision 100 percent. I had no dissenters on that board. I had no one that didn’t believe in what we were doing, and as some new people were added from time to time, there was some dissension … and that is not productive. If you’ve got 90 percent that believes in the management and the vision — I’d say 95, 98 — and you have 2 percent that doesn’t believe that strongly, is it better to get rid of the 90 or 98 percent that does believe and has been there 10, 15, 20 and 25 years or the 1 percent that’s been there a year or two years, that has come in with a new vision that may not have been the vision embraced in the past?”

The 15-member oversight board, called the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission in honor of the retired state senator and longtime museum champion, is also waiting to hear whether Davidson County prosecutors will file charges against and seek restitution from a former museum administrative services assistant who state auditors last year concluded took nearly $62,000 in taxpayer money: $49,477 through phony invoice payments for artifacts to a fictitious company and $12,416 for a rental car billed to the museum for 15 months.

Note: Andy Sher did a similar story in the Times-Free Press. Non-duplicative excerpt below.

Also last year, the museum scrapped plans for a traveling exhibit of Lamar Alexander’s 1978 gubernatorial race and early swearing-in after criticism that it was coming in the midst of his U.S. Senate re-election campaign.

Riggins-Ezzell, who was appointed by Alexander, said the exhibit was an offshoot of a Vanderbilt University exhibit and the museum got involved at a time when many thought he would not seek re-election. It was rescheduled for this year.

McDaniel recently confirmed there has been talk about bringing someone new aboard to work with Riggins-Ezzell, 75, as the new museum takes shape.

Riggins-Ezzell said Friday she was the first one to mention her replacement.

“I brought it up. I’m certainly reaching retirement age, I think you could satisfactorily say.”

She said she is looking at a three- to five-year timeline and “that probably toward the end of my tenure we need to overlap someone with me. I’ve been here for a long time at the museum. I’m extremely proud of the team we have put together and the track record that we have had.”

But, Riggins-Ezzell added, don’t think she’s no longer on top of her game.

“I can outwork every thirty-something in the building, honey, you just note that.”