Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Preserving a Legacy: African-American History Museums Struggle to Remain Relevant amid Growing Financial Woes

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Preserving a Legacy: African-American History Museums Struggle to Remain Relevant amid Growing Financial Woes

Article excerpt

This ought to be a festive year for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the largest museum of its kind in the country. Fifty years ago, Dr. Charles H. Wright, a Detroit physician and civil rights volunteer, opened what was then known as the International Afro-American Museum. It was a small but beloved project that grew steadily.

In 1985, the museum moved into a larger facility. Then, in 1997, with the city pouring in significant funding, the museum relocated again to a state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot facility in the city's cultural center. Billed as the worlds largest Black museum, its gala opening attracted reporters and dignitaries from all over the world.

But within a few years, the Wright Museum, which still receives a sizable portion of its budget from the City of Detroit, encountered financial turbulence.

Its problems were exacerbated in recent years by the financial woes of the Detroit automakers, its biggest corporate benefactors, and the city's bankruptcy filing. As funding fell sharply, it was forced to cut back on programs and lay off half its staff. Just as the city went through bankruptcy proceedings, serious doubts about the museum's future arose.

Staying afloat

Like the Wright Museum, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, in Greensboro, North Carolina, opened its new location with great fanfare in 2010. The museum is located in the old Woolworth building, where in 1960 four freshmen from nearby North Carolina A&T State University staged a sit-in at the lunch counter where they were refused service, kicking off one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement.

Now, five years after the museum opened its doors, it is mired in $26 million of debt and struggling to stay open. According to news reports, the museum has had a difficult time meeting its monthly operating expenses. Last November, the museum board fired its executive director just weeks after he told some past and potential donors that the museum had no money in its operating reserve. The City of Greensboro has offered to take over the management of the museum.

It is estimated that there are more than 300 African-American museums around the country. They span the spectrum--from history to art, music to sports, mom-and-pop operations to larger organizations with dozens of workers.

Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, estimates that about 40 percent of these museums are financially distressed. In addition to funding issues, he says, many struggle with attracting and retaining quality professional museum staff as well as dealing with board members.

Some also fail to plan well.

"Many of the museums are little museums and the bigger ones are associated with the state or county," says Terrie Rouse, a veteran museum executive and former head of the California Afro-American Museum. "Many are aspirational instead of realistic. People are emotionally involved and they should be," but that often doesn't translate into good numbers, she says.

The economic downturn of the last decade has also been hard on nonprofits in general, particularly small ones with little or no endowments.

"Within the last five or six years, there has been a tremendous amount of stress on all museums because of the recession," says Martha Morris, assistant director of museum studies at George Washington University and a former deputy director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. "Most museums are small, with operating budgets under $500,000 a year. It's a tough field to be in."

Adds Black, "It's no different than other nonprofit organizations."

But he says one of the key differences between Black museums and other mainstream museums lies in access to funding and constraints in appealing to broader audiences. He also notes that many mainstream museums have been around for decades longer than Black museums, many of which began to emerge in the '50s and '60s and were essentially church-run operations. …

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