NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday that Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the longtime director of the Tennessee State Museum, is retiring at the end of the year.
Riggins-Ezzell first became the museum’s director in 1981, when it had a staff of six people working in a basement of the War Memorial Building. She oversaw the museum’s transition into its current space in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, where it employs 42 employees and has an annual budget of $3.8 million, not counting private donations.
The retirement comes as the state is spending $120 million to build a new museum north of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, with another $40 million being raised from private sources.
A state attorney general’s opinion issued last week found that the Tennessee State Museum Foundation that is raising the private money is not required to disclose its donors under the state’s open records laws.
Riggins-Ezzell had previously said she wanted to remain in charge of the museum until the new facility is complete in 2018, and raised eyebrows around the state Capitol when she declared to a reporter last year that “I am the museum.”
The governor’s office said in a release that Riggins-Ezzell will retain the title of “executive director emeritus” after her retirement, but did not say what responsibilities that positions will entail or whether it will be paid.
“Lois has given her heart and soul to telling Tennessee’s story and showcasing its rich history across the country and around the world,” Haslam said in a statement.
Riggins-Ezzell’s retirement came as a surprise to State Museum Commission members who found out about it from the governor’s press release, said member Victor Ashe, a former Knoxville mayor who also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland.
While a committee to oversee the Riggins-Ezzell’s successor has been in place for more than a year, no outside search firm has been hired to formalize the process, Ashe said.
“This should have been done over a year ago,” Ashe said. “If the University of Tennessee can choose a new chancellor in four to five months, why is it taking the museum a year and half to choose a new director for 40 employees?”
The Tennessee State Museum was forced to cancel plans to hold a traveling statewide exhibit on U.S. Sen Lamar Alexander’s service as governor amid criticism that it would have coincided with the Republican’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Riggins-Ezzell, who was named executive director of the museum when Alexander was governor in the 1980s, said at the time that political considerations never crossed her mind in planning the show.