Fundraising for the state museum

Victor Ashe
Government/Politics columnist

Gov. Bill Haslam hosted a luncheon Aug. 3 at the Governor’s Residence on Curtiswood Lane in Nashville to beef up the fundraising for the troubled Tennessee State Museum, which has signed on to a $160 million building project for a new museum building in Nashville.

The Legislature directed that $40 million of the $160 million be raised privately, which means the governor will have to do much of the heavy lifting for it to succeed in getting large donations.

Interestingly, the 35-year executive director of the museum, Lois Riggins-Ezzell, did not attend the luncheon. Riggins-Ezzell, who turns 77 in November, has faced several health issues and generated employee morale issues when she declared, “I am the Museum. Jesus.” Many feel she needs to retire.

This project is dear to the governor’s heart as he loves history. A new museum is also needed, but many question whether the current proposal will be adequate to meet the long-term needs. A storage area is not included. The Museum Commission is led by a new chair, Tom Smith. He is from Knoxville but is now a Nashville businessman. He has taken absolute control of the commission, which is a public body subject to public review. (This writer is a commission member, having been appointed by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.)

Smith did indicate at the luncheon that Riggins-Ezzell plans to retire, but no date was given. In fact, the search effort to replace her is almost a year old, and a search firm has not yet been identified, much less employed. Many feel this has dragged on too long already at a time when the University of Tennessee plans on choosing a new chancellor in five months. Some feel the failure to find a new executive director as the new museum emerges from the ground hurts the fundraising effort.

Recently, Smith removed Bob Buchanan, commission member and president of the Tennessee Historical Society, from serving on any committee. Buchanan is a highly respected Nashville attorney who speaks his mind. Buchanan had been on the collections committee, but it did not meet for over a year. People are wondering why Smith is so upset with Buchanan. No one has an answer.

Attending the luncheon besides Bill and Crissy Haslam were Tom Smith; Barry Stowe, chair of Jackson National Life Insurance; Mark Ezell, president of Purity Dairies; Jerry Johnson and Wanda Lyle of UBS Bank; Bill Freeman, partner of Freeman Webb Co., former Nashville mayoral candidate and big-league Democratic donor; Mark Cate, Haslam’s former chief of staff; and Charlie Cook, retired Nashville banker. Rob McNeilly, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank, Nashville, was invited but was a no-show.

It was actually a small group, and not many of the known heavy hitters of the Nashville philanthropic scene (of which there are many) were present. Interestingly, the guests were never specifically asked to contribute to the building fund.

Smith was asked if current Museum Commission and Foundation members had participated in the campaign. Smith gave vague answers about asking them. The governor indicated that roughly $5 million had been raised (or committed) to date from five or six sources but shared no names. That leaves another $35 million to be raised.

Cate is leading the effort to raise funds but has declined to state if donations to secure the $40 million will be made public. At some point, state media will catch on and start asking who is making the large donations to this public project and in what amount.

If donations over $100 to a political candidate must be disclosed, one would think million-dollar donations to this public project would be public, too, especially when the governor himself is seeking the donation.

This could become a sticking point if not revealed and even trigger legislation in the General Assembly to mandate disclosure. It would be much better if it were voluntarily revealed.

The $40 million will be used for exhibit space in the new building to be located on the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville. It is clear there is still a long way to go to raise the money, and the game plan is a work in progress.

■  Gov. Bill Haslam and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett celebrate birthdays next week, with Haslam turning 58 on Tuesday, Aug. 23, and Burchett reaching 52 on Wednesday, Aug. 24.

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