Louisiana's nine public museums are underfunded and short-staffed audit shows

William Taylor Potter
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Louisiana’s public museum system has not had a permanent director since May 2016 and has seen its workforce fall sharply since 2009, owing in large parts to a lack of funding, a new audit of the system shows.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office released a report Monday detailing several issues across the state’s Office of State Museum, which oversees nine public museums across Louisiana. The audit was the second in a series of reports the LLA is doing on the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

The latest audit said the Office of State Museum has faced several issues stemming from its long-time lack of permanent leadership, the low funding and reduced staffing levels over the last several years.

Why do Louisianans lose SNAP benefits? Many times it has nothing to do with money.

The OSM oversees nine museums across the state, including the Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge, the E.D. White Historical Site in Thibodaux, the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in Natchitoches, and five museums in New Orleans: The Cabildo, The Presbytère, the 1850 House, The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the U.S. Mint, and Madame John’s Legacy. Madame John’s Legacy is closed for restoration.

No permanent director and no strategic plan

The Office of State Museum has not had a permanent director since Mark Tullos, Jr. resigned in May 2016. Tullos had been the director since January 2013 and had previously been the director of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He’s been the president and CEO of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience since September 2016.

Since Tullos’ departure, the office has had three interim directors. Tim Chester was appointed as the interim director in October 2016 and resigned in April 2017. He was followed by Steven Maklansky in June 2017, who served until November 2021. Susan Maclay has been in the position since September 2022.

The audit said that the lack of a permanent director “has resulted in a pattern of inconsistent leadership.” The audit said multiple stakeholders claimed the director job has little autonomy and is political in nature due to its position in government. The director is an assistant secretary of the state's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is headed by the lieutenant governor.

The report also said the Office of State Museum currently has no comprehensive strategic plan or detailed budget for the museum system or its exhibits. The audit does say the office has a five-year plan outlining goals, but it does not include a plan on how to meet them or who is responsible for them.

The audit included an anonymous response to an OSM staff survey that said some of the permanent exhibits have not seen updates in more than 15 years.

“We have talented professionals, but suffer from planning and capacity issues,” the response said. “We do not have enough staff to complete exhibit updates and changes in a timely manner, and lack of investment in exhibits, and lack of use of our collection, impacts other programming.”

In her response to the audit, Maclay said the office is working with an outside consulting firm, Lord Cultural Resources, to look at potential improvements to the museum’s governance structure.

Are you ready for a disaster? Nearly half of Louisiana residents may be 'survivalists'

She said the office is also looking at creating more detailed budgets and plans for the museum system.

“The current interim director is committed to working with internal and external stakeholders to create a three-year exhibition plan, complete with beginning and ending deadlines,” Maclay wrote.

Staffing shortage leads to low morale

In 2009, the Office of State Museum had 108 full-time employees, according to the audit. By 2022, that total would fall 41.7% to 63. Around 65% of staff survey respondents said staffing cuts were a major challenge for the system.

Cuts haven’t been the only challenge though. Several positions have sat vacant for long periods before being filled. For example, the director of curatorial services was filled in August 2022 after being vacant for seven months. 

“We already have an extremely small staff and cannot afford to lose anyone, especially because it takes so long to fill positions (if it happens at all),” one response to the staff survey said.

The study from the outside consulting group also said that the office is “woefully underfunded and understaffed,” and suggested increasing the staff to 208 full-time employees, which is around 100 more than the office has had at any point since 2007.

The OSM, which manages five museums in New Orleans, is understaffed by the standard of other local museums. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which is a non-profit and not run by the state, has around 200 employees for the one museum. Another non-profit museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, has around 85 employees.

The audit recommended that the office work to secure grants to hire staff, which Maclay agreed with in her response.

“OSM will develop a staffing plan that identifies areas of need to further the OSM’s mission,” Maclay wrote. “This staffing plan will be used to request additional positions through the state budget process to increase staffing numbers. Currently, due to low staffing numbers, staff members are performing multiple job functions to keep the museums operating. Increased staffing will help to improve organizational productivity and thus presumably improve staff morale.”

Louisiana education board approves raises for teachers, staff and potential stipends

OSM needs to fundraise more and improve data collection

Going hand-in-hand with the audit’s finding that OSM needs more staff, the report also found that the office needs to improve its fundraising efforts. According to the audit, the museum system raised an average of $2.6 million each year between fiscal years 2018 and 2021.

Organizations that help support the OSM noted in the audit that the office’s lack of exhibit plans have hindered fundraising efforts. The audit suggested that the museum director work with the supporting organizations to prioritize fundraising and work with the state’s Department of State Civil Service to create more fundraising positions.

“OSM will assess hiring a staff position who will be responsible for identifying funding opportunities,” Maclay wrote. “Curatorial staff will also be tasked with researching possible grant sources and with providing budget plans and narratives for grants and projects.”

The audit also pointed out that the museum system does not have accurate visitation data for each museum because it has no standard process for tracking and calculating the number of visitors and event rentals.

Maclay said a better system has already been implemented.

“OSM is also in the process of purchasing a new ticketing system with real-time attendance capabilities,” she wrote. “Museum visitation statistics can provide a wealth of information about the popularity of a museum, the types of visitors it attracts, and the times of year that are most popular. OSM will analyze these statistics, to better understand our audience, adjust programming, and market accordingly.”