Editorial: Lawmakers should free State Museum from politics

Editorial: Lawmakers should free State Museum from politics

Louisiana has a treasure trove of cultural and historic institutions, but you’d never know it by the way the Office of State Museum runs nine state-owned entities entrusted to it. That’s the big takeaway from a recent performance audit by Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack.

OSM, also known as the Louisiana State Museum, operates five museums in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge and three others across the state. It’s part of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is led by Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. In a scathing report on the museum’s management, Waguespack outlined a series of operational shortcomings.

For example, OSM has not had a permanent museum director appointed via the process outlined in state law since May 2016. It has had 11 directors since 2004 — seven who served on an interim basis and three since Nungesser took office in 2016. Waguespack notes that the director’s position has “little autonomy and is political in nature.” Nungesser, as lieutenant governor, appoints all 21 members of the State Museum Board.

The report says OSM also suffers from low employee morale and lacks a comprehensive strategic plan, a detailed budget and sufficient marketing resources. Waguespack suggests the museum prioritize hiring a new director. The heart of the problem, however, is the political nature of the museum’s governance.

That wasn’t always the case. In the early 1970s, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed an independent board and allowed it to hire a director based on qualifications — a novel concept in Louisiana. The board hired 32-year-old Robert Macdonald, who served 11 years as museum director (1974-1985) and oversaw some of its best years.

Under Macdonald, the museum achieved American Alliance of Museums accreditation, hosted enormously popular exhibitions such as “The Sun King: Louis XIV and the New World,” and restored the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans, the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge and the State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport. The board also created the Louisiana Museum Foundation in 1981 to expand private support.

Sadly, most of that success has gone away, a victim of political meddling.

In response to the audit, Nungesser suggested merging his nine museums with nine overseen by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and creating regional entities to manage them. Ardoin, who oversees the Old State Capitol, declined. “We will not be altering how the museums under our agency are managed,” he said. “We are proud of the work our museum staff has done across Louisiana.”

Any meaningful reform must include taking OSM out from under the thumb of politicians. That will require legislation — itself a major political hurdle.

One promising option, which Macdonald first suggested in a 2004 analysis, is for the state to consider a public-private partnership. He cites as an example New York City’s Cultural Institutions Group, a collaborative of private nonprofits that manage 34 publicly owned entities, including the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Lincoln Center — to name just a few.

The Audubon Nature Institute uses the same model to manage several popular public entities in New Orleans. BREC operates a superb array of parks and attractions in Baton Rouge. Though their governance differs slightly, Audubon and BREC share a key attribute: Each has a dedicated property tax millage. Citizen engagement likewise helps insulate both from political interference.

“People need to take leadership. They need to come forward and demand better,” Macdonald said recently. “There are good examples around the country of how this can be done. Louisiana can take the best of them and come up with a plan for how to move forward.”

If citizens lead, the politicians will follow.


About Mary Weyand 20630 Articles
Mary founded Scoop Tour with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research. With ample knowledge about the Automobile industry, she also contributes her knowledge for the Automobile section of the website.

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