Voices Of The Arts: The Louisiana State Museum's Mark Tullos

Oct 17, 2013

Voices of the Arts, a series presented by NolaVie and WWNO — New Orleans Public Radio, explores the thoughts and visions of eight new arts leaders in New Orleans.

Through conversations we try to understand how they will engage with the arts and the artists in this already vibrant cultural community; how they view us; what their goals are for their organizations; and what big plans are on their horizons.

Today, meet Mark Tullos, the director of the Louisiana State Museum. He came to New Orleans eight months ago after spending about 10 years as the director of the Hilliard Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A native of Baton Rouge, he studied visual arts at LSU before turning to art history in graduate school. His nearly three-decade career as a museum executive has taken him to various institutions across the southeastern United States.

On how to explain his job:  Most of my period here in New Orleans has been spent trying to get my head wrapped around this wonderful museum collection.

Most people have the idea that the Louisiana State Museum is the Cabildo, which it is. Or they say that it must be the Old U.S. Mint, which it is. But we actually have nine museum properties, including five here in New Orleans. That includes the Cabildo, the Presbytere, and the Pontalba buildings, which house our 1850s house. Madame John's Legacy is located on Dumaine Street, and then, at the other end of the French Market, we have the Old U.S. Mint, which houses not only our numismatic collections from when that was a mint, but will soon host our music collection.

On maintaining iconic buildings: I believe that you can’t discount the significance of the Cabildo, the Presbytere, the Old U.S. Mint, Madame John’s Legacy as being anything but some of the most significant architectural monuments in our country, not just in New Orleans. When people think of Louisiana, you always see those two figurehead buildings, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, in the background of just about any image that shapes this state.

I look at them as objects in the collection and we are treating them as such. We are working on some conversation issues with both of the properties, because as you know these buildings are living breathing things, and if they’re not taken care of they age more rapidly. We're trying our best to preserve them for future generations.

On adapting to the Big Easy: I always thought I understood New Orleans. I was born and raised in Baton Rouge and went to Baton Rouge High and LSU. We would come here as children and young people to visit and have fun, and I always thought I understood the city. Well, I think you could live here all your life and never really understand New Orleans. And that’s part of the mystery of the city; it keeps people enchanted and you're always discovering something new.

I went through a transformative period after assuming this position. I had to live six months in one of the apartments in the Pontalba. Talk about a baptism by fire — and noise and culture, food and music. Six months in the Pontalbas will affect you in strange and unusual ways. Sitting on one of those balconies in itself is a wonderful experience. To be able to see the foot traffic and watch the back and forth of the traffic in the French Quarter, and get to know those individuals.

That really defined new Orleans for me. It really was a neighborhood, people from all walks of life, and all economic levels. I began to understand that New Orleans is pockets of neighborhoods. You can’t define any one area as being generic.

You also put on a lot of weight when you live in the French Quarter.

On what motivates him: We are the caretakers of a half million objects of this state's culture and heritage. Our artifact collection spans not only science and technology, but visual arts and decorative arts and historical documents — the Colonial documents are mind boggling.

On what else motivates him: The thing that I still value about my opportunity to serve in museums is that wonderful moment individuals can have to connect with an object. There are special types of epiphanies you have in museums. Special types of conversations you can have with other people around very important and significant things that represent either a value, or historical places or put your life in historical context. So seeing people enjoy and grow and develop in these museums is what keeps me coming back to work every day.

These are moments you can’t find on the internet or through digital sources; you have to go and you have to enjoy.

On financial challenges:  We need a significant endowment in order to meet our perpetual obligations to care for these buildings and collections. Part of my effort over the next few years is to make sure that is accomplished. We need to lay the groundwork for a substantial, ongoing, perpetual fund that helps support the museum. I know that the state of Louisiana will always be behind the system, because these are public buildings and deserve public support. But they can’t do it all.

On future plans: One of the things we're rolling out first is our Battle of New Orleans celebration in 2015. The exhibition that we're mounting in the Cabildo will be, internationally, a really important moment for the world. The lieutenant governor has set up a special commission for the War of 1812 and Battle of New Orleans. But this will be the only significant exhibition which relates the story of the battle and how Americans have continued to celebrate the Battle of New Orleans through song and culture.

On even bigger future plans: The campaign for The Louisiana Jukebox exhibition will be monumental. We're trying to raise about $7 million, to not only install this state-of-the-art, interactive exhibition full of objects from our collection, but the exhibition itself will cover all genres of Louisiana music — not only jazz and blues and rock and roll, but anything that was developed on the front porches or in the churches or on the riverbanks of Louisiana.