TN State Museum audit prepared, policy changes eyed

An audit of the Tennessee State Museum has been completed and will be presented to members of the museum’s board of directors at a scheduled meeting in Memphis on Oct. 5, according to a spokesman for Comptroller Justin Wilson.

The spokesman, John Dunn, said in a copy of the draft audit by the state comptroller’s office has been provided to the museum management, including Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell, for a response to findings. In accord with auditing policies, he declined to provide any information on those findings in advance.

But former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe said he understands informally that one curious finding is that the museum management keeps alcoholic beverages on hand without properly securing them.

“I didn’t even know we had alcohol there,” said Ashe, a member of the board officially known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission.

Ashe has been leading a movement to replace Riggins-Ezzell as executive director while efforts are underway to raise more than $40 million in private contributions to go with $120 million in taxpayer funding for building a new museum facility by December 2018. The idea of forming a search committee to seek a successor to Riggins-Ezzell is also expected to be discussed at the meeting, to be held at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Ashe has also contended that museum management under Riggins-Ezzell has displayed a geographic bias by buying considerably more contemporary artwork of Nashville-area artists than of artists in East and West Tennessee. On Saturday, the chair of the commission’s Collections Acquisitions Committee, Deanie Parker, circulated a draft proposal for a “collections strategic plan” that would establish a new formal museum policy on collecting artifacts for the museum.

Insofar as works of contemporary art, defined as those of a living artist, the draft lists a number of questions that should be asked by museum staff in deciding whether the work should be acquired.

Overall, it says “collecting priorities” should be to “improve representation” within the museum’s collection of artifacts related to minority groups, immigrants and “middle-class and working-class white women.”

In “geographic coverage,” the draft proposal suggests the museum needs more artifacts related to rural Tennessee.

“For some counties, the museum has very few artifacts suitable for exhibit. Addressing this priority may require travel to these areas by staff to research possible vendors and donors,” says the draft, specifically noting “West Tennessee in general” along with upper East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau.

Among several other things, the draft also suggests the museum is short on artifacts related to agriculture, business and industry. On agricultural matters, the draft notes “the museum has no tractor in its collections.”

Ashe provided a copy of the draft and his emailed response to Parker, who founded the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy in Memphis. In general, the Ashe response praises Parker for coming up with a proposed policy and circulating it, but says Acquisitions Committee members — he is one of them — need more time to review and comment before presenting the proposal to the full board. In the Saturday email, Parker asked for a comment and response from committee members by Monday.