Nungesser to propose museum merger with Secretary of State sites

Strategy comes as audit shows low morale, lack of budget oversight

By: - March 15, 2023 12:11 pm
The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans

The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans is among the sites Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser wants placed under a new regional museum board. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Nine state museums are the responsibility of the Louisiana lieutenant governor, and nine other sites are operated by the Secretary of State. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser wants to place them under the same umbrella and create regional entities to handle their management.

He’s bringing forward the strategy as widespread issues within the Office of State Museums (OSM), which the lieutenant governor oversees, are aired in a Legislative Auditor’s report released this week. The review found museums have operated without a strategic plan or detailed budget for years. Low employee morale was also cited in the audit.  

In addition, three different interim directors have been in charge of the Office of State Museums since Nungesser took office in 2016. The auditor recommends making the hiring of a permanent director a priority, but the lieutenant governor said he’s willing to relinquish that power if Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin goes along with his merger idea.

“I don’t have to control the director,” Nungesser told the Illuminator in an interview. “I just want it to be somebody that does the right thing.”

Under Nungesser’s proposal, neither he nor the Secretary of State would have authority to replace the state museum director. The lieutenant governor envisions three separate museum boards for different areas of the state with each having a corresponding nonprofit support organization. One board would oversee sites in New Orleans, another board would cover Baton Rouge, and the third would encompass the rest of the state.

Nungesser said museum benefactors are more likely to support attractions closer to them.   

These attractions are under the Lt. Governor’s Office of State Museums:

  • The Cabildo, New Orleans
  • The Presbytére, New Orleans
  • New Orleans Jazz Museum
  • The 1850 House, New Orleans
  • Madam John’s Legacy, New Orleans
  • Capital Park Museum, Baton Rouge
  • E.D. White Historic Site, Thibodaux
  • Wendell Williams Aviation Museum & Cypress Sawmill Museum, Patterson
  • Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame & Northwest Louisiana History Museum, Natchitoches

“People in Shreveport don’t care about New Orleans. People in New Orleans don’t care about museums (in the rest of the state),” he said. “So we’ve lost all the private money that has helped make these museums what they used to be.”  

The lieutenant governor’s staff will bring the proposal to Ardoin later this week. In response to an interview request, Secretary of State spokesman John Tobler said the office had “only received preliminary and conceptual ideas and expect more details in our upcoming meeting.”   


‘Long-standing tension’

A survey of museum employees was part of the audit, and it found that a reduction in staffing over the years has led to low workplace morale. From 2009 to 2022, the number of employees at OSM sites has fallen nearly 42% – from 108 to 63.

The auditor also noted data collected at state museums doesn’t specify who’s

coming to the sites because there’s no system to track admissions and event rentals. Nungesser confirmed the museums haven’t recorded whether visitors were tourists, part of a school group or event attendees. The information can help inform tourism marketing efforts, he said. 

Exhibits at state museums are often made possible through contributions from philanthropists and grants, but the audit did not find any system for tracking these donations or whether the museums carried out their grant requirements.

For example, the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the old U.S. Mint building received $1.5 million from 20 different funders from fiscal years 2020 through 2022. The auditor noted that deliverables on these grants could not be tracked.

In her response to the audit, Interim State Museum Director Susan Maclay said the position responsible for monitoring contracts and related programming had been eliminated in 2017 as the result of state budget cuts.  

The audit report also pulls extensively from a 2019 study the Office of State Museums commissioned from consultant Lord Cultural Resources to review its governance structure. 

The firm found “the current governance structure creates political interference and tension, makes fundraising a challenge, and could risk OSM losing accreditation.” The Lord report also noted a “long-standing tension” between the museum board and the Office of State Museums.

These museums are under the Secretary of State:

  • Delta Music Museum, Ferriday
  • Eddie G. Robinson Museum, Grambling
  • Germantown Colony Museum, Minden 
  • Louisiana State Cotton Museum, Lake Providence
  • Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, Shreveport
  • Louisiana Old State Capitol, Baton Rouge
  • Louisiana Oil & Gas Museum, Oil City
  • Mansfield Female College Museum
  • Old Governor’s Mansion, Baton Rouge

Nungesser said the plan to create regional boards comes from the Lord report, and he believes it would eliminate the perception that political decisions steer museum policy.   

State law spells out how the state museum director is hired. It calls for the Louisiana State Museum Board to provide three candidates to the lieutenant governor. According to the audit, no other state gives an elected official the power to hire or fire its state museum leader.

No changes for at least a year   

Maclay said her office intends to develop a specific proposed budget for fiscal year 2025. More specific budgets for each museum site would be fashioned “through innovative partnerships with internal and external stakeholders,” she wrote. 

Nungesser said implementing the Lord report recommendations will require changes to state law that he plans to submit to the legislature next year, which in turn pushes the budget restructuring to 2025. This year is a fiscal session for the legislature, which limits lawmakers to sponsoring five bills each. That restriction, along with the fact Ardoin could be replaced in this year’s election, are why changes aren’t being made this year, Nungesser said.

“I think this year, with Kyle having a tough race for Secretary of State, he’s gonna have his work cut out from him,” Nungesser said.

So far, Ardoin’s only announced challenger is Brandon Trosclair, a local grocery chain owner from Ascension Parish. After ruling out a run for governor, Nungesser is considered a favorite to win re-election as lieutenant governor.

The Secretary of State has its own state museum director, Thomas Carmody of Shreveport. Nungesser did not indicate whether Carmody would be a candidate for the permanent director’s position in his reorganization plan, but he did say he promised Ardoin no state museum employees would lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation. 

Carmody served in the legislature from 2008 to 2020. 

State museums have vexed Nungesser since he took office in 2016, when he said revamping state parks was his priority. He pushed for accountability at the Louisiana State Museum properties in New Orleans, which led to the resignation of then director Tim Chester in 2017. Nungesser wanted to lend paintings in the museum’s collection to U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, and he intended to sell artwork on eBay to raise money, Chester said in an interview with The Advocate.

Nungesser’s personal use of an apartment in the Lower Pontalba building on Jackson Square also came to light. Attorney General Jeff Landry also deemed illegal rent reductions the lieutenant governor granted to Pontalba commercial tenants during peak pandemic months.    

Nungesser said he first ruffled feathers when he went through the state museum’s French Quarter properties and found wasteful spending and donations that have no value to the museum.

“We’ve got some clothes that was donated by wealthy people that got a tax write-off, and we’ve been cleaning those clothes for 50 years,” the lieutenant governor said. “We need to sell all that stuff that has no value. It’s got value, but not to us.”


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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune |, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.