Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has named a new interim Louisiana State Museum director as the controversy over his alleged “meddling” in museum affairs continues.
Steven Maklansky, a veteran of the New Orleans art scene and a former curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art and at the State Museum, returned earlier this month after running two art museums in Florida.
Maklansky replaces Tim Chester, who resigned as interim director in April with a letter accusing Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser of "political interference" in museum operations.
As lieutenant governor, Nungesser heads the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which oversees the state museum system. And thanks to a law championed by former lieutenant governor and current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Nungesser has the power to hire and fire the State Museum director.
That’s caused friction with the last several directors. Last year, shortly after taking office as lieutenant governor, Nungesser fired Mark Tullos, who was outspoken against Nungesser’s plan to move the museum’s collection out of a building in the French Quarter that’s located conveniently near the exhibit spaces in the Cabildo, Presbytere and Old U.S. Mint.
Tullos had argued it would be more expensive to buy and retrofit a different building than it would be to sell a $3.6 million building that’s housed the collection for 15 years.
The tension between Nungesser and museum leaders culminated in Chester’s explosive letter claiming that Nungesser was interfering in day-to-day operations, made personal use of a museum-controlled apartment and threatened to sell artifacts.
Nungesser denied those allegations, saying Chester, a retired museum consultant from Grand Rapids, Mich., was not moving fast enough to fix leaky buildings, streamline the museum’s large collection of art and artifacts and search for a permanent director – even though the museum board, not the interim director, is legally responsible for searching for and recommending museum director candidates to the lieutenant governor.
He also said Chester mischaracterized his actions.
According to records obtained by The New Orleans Advocate, Nungesser’s sister, Nancy Ann Nungesser, is 72nd on a 125-person waiting list for a coveted apartment in the Lower Pontalba Building, a State Museum property. Chester accused the lieutenant governor of “interfering with the process of application for residential apartments,” but Nungesser said he only asked for a copy of the list and never made any changes to it.
“You know, she was on there before I was lieutenant governor,” Nungesser said of his sister, who applied for one of the upscale apartments in 2012, while Nungesser was president of Plaquemines Parish. “And the only thing I did meddle with the list is, I said no one in my family will ever have an apartment.”
Asked if that meant he had removed his sister from the list, Nungesser said: “I don’t know if she’s off. I’ve never meddled with the list.”
In another case Nungesser claims was a mischaracterization, Chester accused Nungesser of threatening to sell artifacts from the museum’s 111-year-old collection on eBay. Nungesser said he assumed that referred to his statement to The New Orleans Advocate last year that a Republican “would pay big money on eBay” for a folding chair President Ronald Reagan sat on during the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans.
He said in the Advocate report last June that he didn’t think the chair – which turned out to be four chairs used by Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, soon-to-be elected George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara – had “any historical value.” But he told WWL-TV this month that he never intended that to mean he would sell the chairs – or any of the museum’s collection, for that matter – without first consulting with the museum staff and board.
“I’ve got to communicate better with the board and make them understand, I don’t want to run the museums,” he acknowledged this month.
But at the same time, Nungesser is doubling down on his authority over the museum by pushing forward with the plan that Tullos opposed before he was fired.
Nungesser plans to create a new nonprofit Culture, Recreation and Tourism Foundation. Last month, the State Legislature passed a bill authorizing the creation of the foundation and giving the lieutenant governor the ability to lease state park lands to develop resorts, such as one Nungesser envisions for acreage near Fontainebleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
One of Nungesser’s plans for the foundation is to turn a State Museum storage facility in the French Quarter into a money-making hotel and conference center.
And that would mean moving the large collections stored in the facility on Chartres Street and, possibly, selling some of the artifacts, Nungesser said.
State Museum Board Chairman Lawrence Powell said he welcomes Nungesser’s creative ideas for raising more money for the museums and other state culture- and tourism-based operations.
“I’m open to the idea” of a hotel in the building that also includes the popular Italian restaurant Irene’s. “I think we need more space and if he can generate more money by putting that space to different use than storage, I don’t see any objection to it.”
But Nungesser also wants to get rid of some of the collection’s artifacts in the process. He said some of the 40,000 items in the museum’s costume and Carnival collection may not be worthy of the State Museum.
For example, he questioned why state resources are going to maintaining delicate beadwork on Mardi Gras Indian suits when there isn’t enough money to restore a tattered flag commemorating battles of the Civil War and Mexican-American War.
Nungesser suggested the Mardi Gras Indian costumes, important symbols of New Orleans’ African-American heritage, are not as important as the flag. He offered that either-or comparison unprompted, even as he has been playing a key role in the racially charged controversy over New Orleans’ Confederate monuments, opposing their removal and now seeking to take control over where they will now be displayed.
Powell says he wants to work with Nungesser to help the lieutenant governor achieve his goals, but said he must leave such curatorial decisions up to the professionals or it could cause even more harm to the museum.
“He will have to back off, because our accreditation will be at risk (if he doesn’t),” Powell said.