- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The longtime executive director of the Tennessee State Museum is rejecting calls for her to be replaced as the state plans for a new $160 million facility in Nashville.

Lois Riggins-Ezell in an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel (https://bit.ly/1E33JUt ) said she plans to remain “as long as I can,” citing her role in growing the museum from six staffers working in a basement of the War Memorial Building in 1981 to its current 120,000-square foot facilities with 42 employees and an annual budget of $3.8 million, not counting private donations.

“I am the museum,” Riggins-Ezell exclaimed while discussing criticism of her accomplishments, though she promptly expressed regret at the remark.

Former Ambassador Victor Ashe, a member and former chairman of the board overseeing museum operations, said Riggins-Ezzell should be “honored and saluted” for her past work, but should step aside for new leadership in a new era with a new museum in the works.

Ashe said Riggins-Ezell has shown a bias toward Nashville-area art purchases over works produced in other parts of the state. There is a public perception that “it’s not a state museum, it’s a Nashville museum,” he said.

Riggins-Ezell adamantly disputes that statement, reeling off a long list of examples of artifacts and exhibits about the eastern and western sections of the state, and noting that contemporary art makes up a small portion of the museum’s collections.

A special audit released by the state comptroller earlier this year found that a museum employee had stolen more than $61,000, mostly by falsifying invoices. The worker charged with theft, forgery and fraud was fired shortly after the comptroller’s report was released.

Another museum worker resigned after being arrested last month by officers who reported seizing 300 pounds of marijuana.

Both former employees had had prior criminal records, which Ashe said “at the very best show poor judgment” by Riggins-Ezzell, who is responsible for all hiring and firing at the museum.

Riggins-Ezzell said both workers had originally been hired as contractors on a temporary basis, and that both did good work and wound up getting jobs as state employees.

Ashe said he plans to bring up the idea of establishing a search committee to find a successor to Riggins-Ezzell at the museum commission’s next meeting in October. While he acknowledged that a motion to oust her may not find support at this point, he said “we ought to at least talk about it.”

“On boards, I’ve always raised questions that others didn’t want to answer,” said Ashe, who served in the state House and Senate in the 1980s and later as mayor of Knoxville. “I did the same thing as a legislator . (but) I try to be professional and impersonal.”

Riggins-Ezzell said Ashe’s tendency toward hyperbole and exaggeration can be irritating, but added that there are also positive aspects.

Ashe has been “very challenging to me,” she said, but has “asked good questions” as a commission member.

“It has helped me look very closely at my own actions and clarify” what needs to be done, she said.

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Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, https://www.knoxnews.com


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