NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Approaching the end of his second month on the job, Mark Tullos still bubbles with enthusiasm when talking about his role as director of the Louisiana State Museum. Calling the post a professional and personal dream come true, he said recently: "We've got to succeed in the biggest way because Louisiana deserves it."
The question is whether the financial and political realities he must confront will let him do so.
Tullos, a Baton Rouge native, was named the museum system's director in December by Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, becoming the fourth person to hold the job in less than five years.
After beginning work in late January, Tullos said, he spent much of his time getting to know his 80 employees and the five boards of directors he must work with, and familiarizing himself with the system's sprawling holdings: the Cabildo, Presbytere, Lower Pontalba Building, Old U.S. Mint and other historic buildings in the French Quarter; a museum near the Capitol building in Baton Rouge; museums in Patterson and Thibodaux; and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, due to open this summer in Natchitoches.
The museum's collection includes more than 450,000 objects: documents, paintings, articles of clothing and other artifacts ranging from campaign posters and weapons to phonograph records and Carnival ball invitations.
"Everybody in Louisiana might be surprised by what we have," he said, calling the museum's collections "the best-kept secret in the state." Even Tullos, a Louisiana native with deep roots in the state and a lifelong museum professional, was amazed when he began to explore them seriously, he said.
His biggest "Eureka" moment, he said, came in the Baton Rouge museum when he ran across the steering wheel from a 19th century paddlewheeler, the J.M. White, on which one of his ancestors had been the pilot. Even in the age of the Internet, he said, "Nothing can replace the experience of coming face to face with a really important object."
Tullos has been a museum executive for more than 27 years, serving as director of institutions in Waco, Texas; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Alexandria, La.; Ocean Springs, Miss.; and Lufkin, Texas; before becoming director of the Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2005. Although most of his jobs have been at art museums, he said, he has worked with all types of institutions, including history and science collections.
He laid out an extremely ambitious agenda of goals for his tenure. After the immediate task of getting the Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches open, he said, he wants to turn his attention to the system's New Orleans facilities, looking for ways to use the spaces more effectively and to attract more people into them.
He would like to expand the Cabildo's exhibits on Louisiana's history, which now run only through Reconstruction, to bring the story into the 20th century. He'd like to do more on New Orleans history and the role the Mississippi River played in it.
The Mint will continue to focus on Louisiana music; plans call for spending nearly $4 million there, which Tullos will have to raise from private donors or the state. But the museum has had to struggle mightily to find major donors for past projects. And at a time when the state is cutting support for healthcare and higher education and when the museum's own budget has been reduced in recent years, it remains to be seen whether Tullos' argument that paying for the Mint project would be a smart "investment in tourism" will fly with the administration or legislators in Baton Rouge.
Tullos also wants to increase promotional efforts, to ramp up digitization of the museum's collections so more of the objects will be available for viewing and study on the Internet, to establish a major endowment to fund new exhibits, to find appropriate ways to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans in 2015 and the city's 300th birthday in 2018. And some of the system's buildings need expensive repairs.
He said he is confident he has a strong backer in Dardenne, who as lieutenant governor oversees the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, of which the museum system is a part. Dardenne, he said, is a "passionate supporter" of the museum. But the lieutenant governor does not determine how much money the state will give to the system each year, and in any case Dardenne may very well leave his job in three years.
The state museum's director once was somewhat insulated from changes in political fortunes in Baton Rouge, reporting to a board of directors that maintained at least some degree of independence. But in 2008 then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu pushed through legislation giving him and his successors the authority to hire and fire the director as well as to appoint the board members.
At the same time Landrieu forced out the museum's well-respected director, David Kahn, who had been hired two years earlier, after a bitter dispute over the system's management. Kahn left to become director of the San Diego Historical Society.
Sam Rykels, a longtime museum staff member, became the director in early 2009, but he was forced to resign in early 2011, shortly after Dardenne took over the state's second-highest elected position after Landrieu became mayor of New Orleans. Dardenne said he had serious concerns about how the museum system was being run under Rykels' leadership.
Robert Wheat, the museum's deputy director, served as acting director for two years after Rykels' departure before Tullos finally was hired. Wheat, a career state employee but not a museum professional, had served as acting director during earlier transitions, though not for as long a period.
Despite all the challenges and occasional warnings from museum supporters about possible pitfalls ahead, Tullos sounds determined to turn his hopes into reality. "We have to explain to our citizens what we hold in trust for them," he said: "an unmatched treasure house" of buildings and artifacts telling the story of Louisiana and its unique culture. "We need to draw people into these buildings."