Tucked inside an unmarked, nondescript corner building on Chartres Street in the French Quarter are hundreds of thousands of carefully cataloged artifacts spanning more than three centuries of Louisiana’s cultural heritage.
The Louisiana State Museum system, with five nearby facilities that are open to the public, uses the four-story, climate-controlled storage facility to house the rest of its vast collection of historical records, gilt-framed paintings, period clothing and other artifacts that date back as far as Louisiana’s colonial days.
As state lawmakers have grappled with an estimated $600 million shortfall in next year’s budget, the museum system’s financial picture appeared bleak — an initially scheduled 37 percent drop in its state appropriation on top of years of funding cuts that left the museum system with its lowest budget and smallest staff in more than a decade.
After six months on the job, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has been looking for ways to cut costs and raise revenue for the museum. One idea he’s exploring: selling the system’s storage building, which sits on 7,700 square feet of prime French Quarter real estate, and some of its more than 400,000 artifacts — those that are deemed to be of limited value.
“Why are we storing art in the middle of the French Quarter in such a valuable building?” Nungesser said. “That’s such an expensive building to maintain. I’d much rather see that cost going into maintaining and improving our museums.”
Nungesser described his ideas — still not definite, and almost certain to draw the ire of some museum supporters — in a recent interview.
A former two-term president of Plaquemines Parish, Nungesser was elected lieutenant governor last fall and took office in January. By law, the lieutenant governor oversees the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which includes the Louisiana State Museum — a system that includes museums in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other cities.
Last month, Nungesser dismissed the system’s director, Mark Tullos, a Baton Rouge native who took over in 2013.
In interviews, several board members — who declined to comment on the record — said they were surprised to learn about Tullos’ departure only after the fact. They saw Tullos as a decent guy who held the system together despite steep budget cuts and additional challenges, like last year’s mold outbreak at the 1850 House — a house museum that is part of the Lower Pontalba Building — and the collections building.
Nungesser was vague about why he fired Tullos, but he said museum leaders didn’t have a well-thought-out budget and seemingly “just went from one fire to another fire.”
“Not that Mark didn’t do his best job, but we needed — you’ve got to have somebody at the top setting the rules, the goals and what’s expected of people,” Nungesser said.
For the current fiscal year, the museum lost about $1 million of its state funding, leaving it with $6.1 million. For the year that begins July 1, Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed $3.8 million, representing a further cut of 37 percent.
The final figure, though, is expected to be about $6.4 million.
‘Nothing off the table’
Despite years of cuts, Nungesser isn’t planning to close any of the system’s museums. Instead, he wants to drum up more attendance — and in turn, cash —— by rotating exhibits and promoting the facilities. And a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign is underway to open the New Orleans Jazz Museum, which supporters hope will house thousands of jazz-related artifacts, at the Old U.S. Mint in time for the city’s 2018 tricentennial.
While putting the storage facility on the block could bring a sizable return — it offers views that would make a condo developer envious — the idea is fraught with challenges, state officials say.
Selling it would require the state to pack and move the collection to an alternative building or buildings, which might have to be outfitted as museum-quality storage space.
Paring down the system’s trove of artifacts could free up space in a future facility, according to Nungesser, and selling any items that are not considered locally relevant could drum up some much-needed cash — though the final say on selling any items from the collection would fall to the museum system’s board.
The board includes seven political appointees and 13 representatives of museum support groups and historical societies.
Any proceeds from the building’s sale would ultimately wind up in the state’s general fund, limiting the museum’s direct windfall.
“We’re going to be good stewards of the tax dollars that go into the museum system by not air conditioning and storing things that have absolutely no value in these tight budget times,” Nungesser said. “Nothing should be off the table. Every dollar that we save in every nook and corner of the state, that’s money that we can spend to the greater good of maintaining the valuable artworks that we have there.”
At least some of the museum’s backers — including board member Lawrence Powell — are willing to listen. “I want to keep an open mind,” said Powell, a retired history professor at Tulane University.
Not everyone is ready to go along with Nungesser’s proposed sale of the building or some artifacts, however. In interviews, several board members expressed skepticism about the idea and wondered aloud if it’s a harbinger of Nungesser’s managing style. They said they were surprised not to have had more input in Tullos’ dismissal.
Jay Dardenne, the state commissioner of administration and the lieutenant governor before Nungesser, described the possibility of selling the storage building as a long shot.
“If — it’s a big if — but if that building were sold, it would have to be declared surplus, and there’s a statutory scheme that governs what would happen,” he said.
Value of Reagan’s chair?
The Chartres Street building was valued at nearly $3.6 million for 2016, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office — likely a modest value for a large building in a highly sought-after historic neighborhood.
One state fiscal watchdog is buying into the argument for considering its possible sale, at least on its face. “I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t look for a less expensive alternative,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project in Baton Rouge. “That’s not to say he necessarily should sell that space. There may be some better use for that. I have no idea.”
As far as reducing the size of the museum’s collection, Nungesser isn’t interested in holding a fire sale. But some items have limited historical or local ties, he said, citing a folding chair that former President Ronald Reagan once sat on at the Rivergate exhibition hall.
“To me, that doesn’t have any historical value,” Nungesser said. “Some Republican would pay big money on eBay to buy that, but I don’t think we should be using tax dollars to store it.”
But short-term gains shouldn’t drive such decisions, others say.
“It’s not just a monetary value that’s associated with it,” longtime museum board member Rosemary Ewing said. “All the things that we keep in this collection are representative, frankly, of what I think are the best of our cultures all over the state. Who’s to say what’s good right now and what won’t be good later on?”
When he was hired, Tullos — whose résumé included nearly three decades as a museum executive — was the fourth person to hold the director’s job in less than five years. Since his firing, he has been appointed interim director of the Louisiana Naval War Memorial, which includes the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum in Baton Rouge.
He did not respond to multiple messages left by The Advocate in recent weeks.
Dardenne thought Tullos “had been doing a fine job,” he said, crediting him with stretching a thin budget that later had to cover expenses at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame & Northwest Louisiana History Museum, a $23 million facility that opened in Natchitoches in 2013.
To hire the museum’s next director, the board will appoint a search committee, which will nominate three candidates for the post. Nungesser will pick from that group.
Working with the board
Nungesser dismissed the suggestion that a prospective director might be reluctant to accept a job so dependent on the changing political landscape. Instead, he said, he plans to work closely with board members moving ahead.
“I’m going to give them my opinion,” he said. “If I can’t convince them it’s the right thing to do, it’s probably not, but I believe the board should be making the decisions.”
But if he wants to start listing items from the collection on eBay, he’s going to have a hard time convincing Ewing.
“If it’s valuable on eBay, it’s valuable to us, too,” said Ewing .
Ewing was part of the board that hired Tullos. She “thought he did a really good job” and would have appreciated a heads-up that he was being dismissed.
Others once involved with the museum contend that Baton Rouge politics plays an outsized role in the system’s management.
“I’ve been a director at five different institutions, including the Louisiana State Museum, and it’s the only place that I’ve ever worked where there was incredibly and completely unprofessional interference in the day-to-day operation of the museum,” said David Kahn, who now is executive director of the Adirondack Museum in New York.
Kahn was forced out of the local director’s job by then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who pushed for legislation giving him the power to hire and fire the director. Not long afterward, he forced out Kahn, who had been hired two years earlier.
New Orleans’ mayor since 2010, Landrieu — through a city spokesman — did not respond to a request for comment.
On the surface, Kahn said, selling the warehouse building is feasible. He recalled ill-fated incidents involving Formosan termite swarms and a fire years ago in a first-floor restaurant, Irene’s Cuisine. The museum recently told Irene’s its lease will not be renewed after 2018.
But such a sale, others say, may offer only a short-term solution.
“We may sell this place, but we’ve still got four stories of collections that we’re going to have to save and store somewhere,” Ewing said. “You don’t (display) everything all the time. You rotate it. That’s the attraction of a museum.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.