Glancing around Lois Riggins-Ezzell’s office, it is obvious she is passionate about art and preserving Tennessee’s history in perpetuity. On the back wall is a huge canvas by renowned painter Hunt Slonem, a former Vanderbilt student, and a gigantic, hand-carved foot, a remarkable work by Tennessee sculptor Olen Bryant. Lois has been executive director of the Tennessee State Museum since 1981, so her staying power supersedes that of most of her peers. And, with the opening of the new $160 million Tennessee State Museum on the grounds of the Bicentennial Mall, Lois can celebrate her good works as the long-awaited project comes to fruition. It is with great pleasure that we introduce you to Lois Riggins-Ezzell, today’s FACE of Nashville.
The groundbreaking for the new site of the Tennessee State Museum occurred on April 6, 2016. Can you share with our readers why it is important for the citizens of Tennessee and what we can look forward to when it’s completed?
I believe that Tennessee is the greatest state in the United States of America. When you consider our history, we’ve recovered from a dark and bloody war, fought prejudices and given women the right to vote. No state can compete with richness and complexities of who we are and what we have accomplished from the music of Dolly Parton and Tina Turner to the statesmanship of Andrew Jackson to the insights of Alex Haley; it’s simply jaw-dropping. The new museum, with its vast limestone pillars and Great Hall, will offer a state-of-the-art digital learning center, an educational suite for students and a number of permanent exhibits. If you think about what a museum offers visitors, it is the ability to have a one-on-one interaction with a moment in time. The emotion one feels while looking at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration hat with its mourning band that signified his devotion to his beloved Rachel or seeing the bones of a giant mammoth is absolutely indescribable. One of the many challenges any museum has is being able to display all the things in their collection. The new museum will have a Time Tunnel, so that visitors can see a retrospective of Tennessee’s history and several changing exhibits displayed within the permanent ones.
You have been in your position as executive director of the Tennessee State Museum since 1981. Through the years, similar organizations have seen executive directors come and go, but you have an uncanny ability to navigate through a variety of administrations and challenges. What is your secret sauce?
The only secret sauce I have is this: I love this institution and am honored to serve the citizens of Tennessee. I walk through the doors every morning and leave every night never having really had a bad day. Yes, there are daily challenges as executive director, but to work with such talented employees and to derive such satisfaction in touching the lives of so many is my greatest joy. My job is to serve the vision of the governors of the Volunteer State, whether we’re creating special programs for students or curating landmark exhibitions like “Masterworks,” a monumental show from the Bridgestone Museum in Tokyo.
Can you share with our readers the outreach the Tennessee State Museum does for schoolchildren?
If you consider how vast and how rural much of the state actually is, there are many children who may never travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to the Smithsonian. We have thousands of students visit the museum each year, but our most important mission is taking the museum to them. We have a program that started here 30 years ago under my direction with John Buchanan, the recently deceased director of San Francisco’s DeYoung and the Legion of Honor museums. By taking the trunks or traveling “mini” museums into the classroom, children can experience the hardships of early Native Americans, learn about the War of 1812 and see what a doughboy from the First World War looks like. By creating good museum habits through exposure to culture, history and the arts, we have impacted students’ lives forever.
Is there a common misconception that people have about the Tennessee State Museum?
I don’t think most people understand the depth of outreach we do across the state. We are continually sending out curators and educators to the field to help other museums. For example, if a museum in East Tennessee needs consultation about its textile collection, we are able to send one of our experts to advise them. In 2015-2016, we served more than 32,000 students at over 360 Tennessee schools. People feel ownership of this museum. Teachers know that their students will be introduced to cultural enrichment on a level that they cannot realize in their own communities. Our collection comprises an astounding 140,000+ artifacts and works of art.
The art collection at the Tennessee State Museum is impressive. Is there an artist who you are proud to have introduced to museumgoers?
Red Grooms comes immediately to mind. When we exhibited his work in 1986 he was not known to many Tennesseans. That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? He was the toast of New York, Tokyo and London; yet very few knew he was, indeed, a hometown boy. Or consider Memphis painter Carroll Cloar, one of the finest storyteller artists in America. He created over 800 paintings in his lifetime. While many are now familiar with his work, there are others who have never seen his marvelously whimsical paintings of the South, which depict times and places that no longer exist.
What meal at a local restaurant has recently wowed you the most?
You can’t beat Charlie Bob’s on Dickerson Road. It has the best hamburgers in town — it’s sort of a rowdy meat n’ three that serves ice-cold beer. (Editor’s note: Charlie Bob’s Restaurant has been owned and operated by the Douglas family since 1972. The ‘40s brought a small coffee shop when Highway 41 was the first paved road in and out of Nashville. In the ‘50s, the restaurant was a carhop complete with waitresses on roller skates.)
What books are on your bedside table?
I have a quirky habit of rereading books that resonate with me. So, when Jon Meacham spoke at the recent groundbreaking, I picked up American Lion, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson. Meacham is a true man of letters, who exudes Southern charm.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Any place with an exceptional museum. Off the top of my head, I enjoy Santa Fe and New Orleans. Both have unique cultures steeped in history and, of course, fabulous museums.
Is there something our readers would be surprised to know about you?
I am the doting grandmother on a level that Leslie Stahl writes about in her new book, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Just one concern: we need to keep our planet well and respect nature.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Americana music and rock n’ roll, Prosecco and French butter.
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photographs. See more of her work on her website — click here.
There are so many inspiring women in Nashville. Read all about them in our FACES section — click here.