NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesQuestions of Influence


State Museum Faces Questions About Politics, Art

TIMELINE: Investigating the Investigators
Posted at 6:20 PM, Aug 27, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The taxpayer-funded Tennessee State Museum has denied that politics played role in a series of controversial decisions.

But some past board members have questioned moves by the museum's leadership, including Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell.

It comes as the museum seeks to build a new facility using $120 million approved by Tennessee lawmakers.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates first questioned the timing of an exhibit featuring United States Senator Lamar Alexander.

The museum planned to travel the exhibit across the state at the same time Alexander was running for re-election.

But when we first raised questions back in 2013, Riggins-Ezzell said: "We will still do the exhibit. We'll do it later."

She continued, "This is one of the pivotal stories in Tennessee contemporary political history."

It focused primarily on Alexander's time as governor.

But when NewsChannel 5 Investigates found e-mails showing museum employees communicated with Alexander's campaign staff about issues like funding for the exhibit, Riggins-Ezzell said it would travel the state after the election.

Now two years later, after Alexander has been re-elected, the museum announced the exhibit may never be shown.

A spokesperson said the Alexander exhibit and another traveling exhibit have been put on indefinite hold while the museum works on plans for a new building -- using the $120 million promised by the Tennessee legislature.

But that money has brought new questions.

The governor's former chief of staff, Mark Cate, was just hired for $10,000 a month to oversee the new building.

And some board members have questioned why the museum bought art from a woman who served on the state committee that decided whether to appropriate money for the museum.

The museum paid $3,600 for paintings by Susan Simons.

Simons also sat on the Governor's New Museum Task Force.

As reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, former museum board member Charlie Cook questioned whether the museum violated its own ethics rules with the purchase.

It's not the only time questions have been raised about museum purchases.

In 2013, Riggins-Ezzell defended buying pictures from Jessica Ingram -- the daughter of political power broker Tom Ingram.

Tom Ingram was an advisor to Governor Haslam and remains an advisor to Senator Alexander.

"I knew her because she was Tom Ingram's daughter," Riggins-Ezzell said in a 2013 interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates. "But did that have any influence on the purchase of the touring exhibit? Absolutely not. Only the excellence and quality of the work had to do with that."

The museum spent $6,000 on Ingram's pictures of civil rights sites.

"A museum doesn't buy things because they know someone," Riggins-Ezzell said. "They buy things because the work tells a story, makes a statement."

Two members of the museum foundation's board were recently removed from the board after criticizing some of the art purchases.

Tom Ingram sent a statement that said:

“I had nothing to do with any agreement between my daughter and the State Museum. I’m proud of her for opening her show at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and I encourage you to check it out at Duke where it’s currently on exhibit.”