On TN State Museum, artwork and critics

Since former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe accused the Tennessee State Museum of geographic bias in contemporary art purchases, the museum has bought works by four East Tennessee artists — although still spending more money in Middle Tennessee, a review of records provided by the museum indicates.

Ashe, a member of the museum’s board of directors, says the purchases of works by living artists from outside Middle Tennessee over the past two years are a step in the right direction, but “to balance the past discrimination, they’d have to buy almost everything from East and West Tennessee for years to come.”

Ashe said he intends to raise the notion of replacing the museum’s longtime executive director, Lois Riggins-Ezzell, at a meeting of the museum board — formally known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission — set for Oct. 5 in Memphis.

The commission’s chairman, Republican state Rep. Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads, says he is open to the idea of discussing creation of a search committee to consider a successor to Riggins-Ezzell, 75, who has led the museum since 1981 and who has expressed an intention to “stay as long as I can” — at least until a planned new $160 million museum is completed and opened. That is scheduled for December 2018.

McDaniel says it is premature to set a timeline in seeking a new museum leader, although it would be “a logical step to be taken at some time in the future.” Ashe says the sooner the better, contending new leadership should be in place as a new museum is planned and built.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who put into place plans for the new museum using $120 million in taxpayer dollars while seeking more than $40 million in private donations, has declined to publicly take a position while lauding Riggins-Ezzell’s past accomplishments.

“The governor would strongly recommend a search committee be formed at whatever point Lois Riggins-Ezell decides to retire,” said Haslam spokesman David Smith in an email.

Former state Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville, a Tennessee history buff whose stalwart support of the museum over many years is enshrined in the commission name, recently wrote Haslam a letter urging Riggins-Ezzell be retained. Smith said he was unaware of whether Haslam has replied to the letter.

Ashe, 70, who has also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland and as a Republican state senator, initially raised charges of Riggins-Ezzell showing favoritism toward artists and art galleries in the Nashville area after two members of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation board contended contemporary artwork was being purchased in violation of museum policies. The foundation board is separate from the commission board and dedicated to raising private funds for the museum to supplement state appropriations.

Henry Walker, a Nashville attorney and foundation board member, produced a memo stating 11 contemporary art purchases from 2008 through January 2014 were acquired improperly. He said they resulted from “shopping sprees” in the Nashville area by Riggins-Ezzell and Leigh Hendry, the museum director of external affairs.

Another foundation board member, Nashville banker Charles Cook, questioned whether purchases of paintings from Susan Simons of Nashville amounted to a conflict of interest since Simons had served on the board and, at the time of the 2013 purchases, was serving on a Haslam-appointed “task force” studying the need for a new museum. Walker and Cook subsequently lost their seats on the foundation board, reportedly at the urging of Riggins-Ezzell.

Walker based his memo on a museum listing of contemporary art purchases from Jan. 1, 2008, until January 2014. A review of that list indicates Ashe was correct in saying a majority of purchases — as opposed to donated artwork, including some items purchased by the Tennessee Arts Commission, then given to the museum — came from Middle Tennessee artists.

The 2008-2014 list indicates a total of $161,755 spent for Middle Tennessee purchases. For East Tennessee, the total was $55,893; for West Tennessee, $30,247. At one point earlier, Ashe suggested about 80 percent of purchases were from Middle Tennessee. Under this tally, the actual figure is about 65 percent of the funds involved.

Insofar as the number of artists involved, the balance appears even more tilted toward Middle Tennessee. Eleven East Tennessee artists’ work were purchased during the six-year period — the same number in 2008 alone for Middle Tennesseans. A total of 16 West Tennessee artists’ works were purchased during the period.

The museum recently provided a listing of contemporary art acquisitions for 2014 and 2015, as of Sept. 4. That list shows just $29,380 in purchases — $10,340 for works by four Knoxville artists, $1,800 for a Memphis artist’s sculpture and $17,240 for paintings.

All but $2,242 of the money spent on paintings went for two works by Charles Rogers “Red” Grooms, arguably the state’s most acclaimed living artist, a Nashville native listed as living in New York and Beersheba Springs, a small town in Middle Tennessee’s Grundy County. The museum put on display 50 of Grooms’ paintings in a recent exhibit tied to the Civil War in Tennessee.

Ashe said he was “somewhat flabbergasted” to learn the museum has purchased more of Grooms’ paintings because the museum already holds “more than 300” pieces of his work and “we’re not the museum of Red Grooms, distinguished artist that he is.”

Much of Grooms’ work held by the museum, Ashe said, has been purchased by another commission member, Walter G. Knestrick of Nashville, then loaned to the museum. The museum thus bears the cost of storage, maintenance, insurance and related costs without actual ownership, he said, and provides another example of questionable management of museum affairs under Riggins-Ezzell.

The purchase totals do not include work of non-Tennessee residents, such as Jessica Ingram, the daughter of veteran Tennessee political operative Tom Ingram who lives now in California and who has built a reputation for photography of people and places associated with the civil rights movement.

The museum has purchased $6,000 worth of Ingram’s photographs and spent another $16,000 on a three-year traveling exhibit featuring her work that ended last year. A museum spokeswoman says museum officials recently decided to renew the traveling exhibit in Tennessee, currently on display by Duke University, and anticipate a donation of $5,000 to cover that cost.

McDaniel said the possibility of geographic bias in contemporary art purchases is “something we will be looking at,” although he is not familiar with specifics.

Walker said recent developments, including the list of 2014 and 2015 purchases, indicate criticism of Riggins-Ezzell has made an impact.

“Thanks to me and Charlie (Cook), now they don’t just waltz into galleries or studios owned by friends and buy at taxpayer expense whatever strikes Lois’ and Leigh Hendry’s fancy,” he said. “Thanks to Victor, maybe they’re starting to (look at) artists in East and Middle Tennessee.”

Museum officials would not address specifics of the criticism, but defended the process of collecting of artwork in general.

“The museum has always addressed its acquisitions with a professional approach. As a result, we have amassed a wonderfully balanced permanent collection reflective of the Volunteer State,” said Mary Skinner, museum spokeswoman, in an email.

The four works by Knoxvillians listed as 2014-15 purchases by the museum include Marcia Goldenstein’s painting, “September Panorama” ($2,800); three photographs by Don Dudenbostel of famed Cocke County moonshiner Popcorn Sutton ($840); Carlyle Urello’s “Oil painting depicting Mississippian era salt-making” ($4,500); and Denise Stewart-Sanabria’s painting entitled “Battle of Goo Goo Moon” ($2,200).

The earlier six-year list has just one purchase from a Knoxville artist — $850 paid for the painting “Rural Farmhouse in Winter” by Jim Gray.

Haslam last week appointed Knoxville’s Pete Claussen, chairman and CEO of Gulf & Ohio Railways Inc., as the newest member of the museum commission. He has previously served on the board of the National Museum of Natural History, according to that museum’s website. The commission still has one vacant position to be filled by gubernatorial appointment.

Ashe was appointed to the commission by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. House Speaker Beth Harwell is a member of the commission.