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State Museum Stores Commissioner's Private Art Collection

Posted: 7:24 PM, Sep 28, 2015
Updated: 2016-01-18 00:30:49-05
State Museum Stores Commissioner's Private Art Collection

The Tennessee State Museum houses nearly 200 works of art owned by a member of the State Museum Commission, which oversees the museum.

The arrangement has raised concerns from another commission member about whether taxpayers are paying to store privately owned art -- despite limited space and staff at the museum.

Commissioner Walter Knestrick is a longtime collector of the works of Tennessee artist Red Grooms.  Many of the Grooms paintings that he owns are located at the Tennessee State Museum.

"Taxpayers should not pay for the storage for paintings which are privately held and no date for a final donation has been determined," Commissioner Victor Ashe told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

But the longtime executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, Lois Riggins-Ezzell, passionately defended the arrangement.

"I think there is little fault you can find here," Riggins-Ezzell said during an interview last week.

Riggins-Ezzell disputed criticism from Ashe, but was occasionally told to watch her comments by the museum's media relations person who sat in on the interview.

"There's no bad use of public money," Riggins-Ezzell insisted. "There's no bad use of manipulating a system to help an old rich man."

The museum's media relations person cautioned her from across the table.

"I know," Riggins-Ezzell responded.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "How many art works of Red Grooms do you have?"

"Well, I'm going to tell you exactly -- I have 191," she answered.

Riggins-Ezzell said nine of those are owned by the museum. 

Nearly all the others are owned by Knestrick.

Victor Ashe told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "Taxpayers should not pay for the staff time to select and package privately owned items out of state."

Riggins-Ezzell responded, "I certainly have great respect for the concerns Mr. Ashe may have. We simply are seldom on the same page."

Museum emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 show staff members spend time packing and shipping Knestrick's paintings to other museums.

In July, Knestrick forwarded a message to Riggins-Ezzell in which a New York exhibitor wanted all Red Grooms items framed by the Tennessee State Museum "to save the cost of framing."

Riggins-Ezzell told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that the museum did not pay for the framing.

"They will pay for them, they will insure them and they will frame them, so there is no concern here for you to worry yourself about," Riggins-Ezzell said.

But a museum employee raised concerns in August when she was told to help prepare some of the Knestrick-owned paintings for an exhibit in Washington.

In an e-mail, the employee worried about a "conflict of interest" and "the appearance of impropriety."

But Riggins-Ezzell dismissed her concerns and called the tone of her e-mail "impertinent."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Why was it said back to her it was impertinent? That her tone was impertinent?"

"The tone, I think," Riggins-Ezzell said. "The tone of it was 'My God, we've got to be sure we don't get in trouble on this.'"

Red Grooms is an internationally known artist who was born in Middle Tennessee.

Riggins-Ezell said the museum is fortunate that Knestrick loaned the art to the museum and is now in talks to gift them.

"What a gift this is for the citizens of Tennessee. Who would want for the citizens of Tennessee not to have this in perpetuity?"" Riggins-Ezzell asked.

But currently there is no written agreement between Knestrick and the state for him to donate the paintings.

Until that time, Ashe said, its wrong they are stored, insured and displayed at museum expense.

Riggins-Ezzell said the paintings don't cost the state more to insure because it has a blanket policy.

She said Knestrick and the Tennessee Attorney General are working on an official agreement to donate the works of art.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "But that's not complete yet?"

Riggins-Ezzell said, "As I understand it, that has been sent to Mr. Knestrick some time ago."

She blamed the controversy on critics who want her to retire before the opening of the new museum.

But she insisted that she has no plans to step aside.

"I want to stay as long as possible to see this museum become a reality. We've all worked for it, and we all want to see it happen," Riggins-Ezzell said.

Walter Knestrick said he had no comment when we contacted him by phone.

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office confirmed they are talking with Knestrick, but there is no current agreement about donating the art.