Detroit Bankruptcy Puts Biggest Black American History Museum At Risk

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As Black History Month draws to a close this week, so might another national figure of the African American legacy.

The Charles H. Wright Museum, the largest museum of African American history, faces a grim future due to its bankrupt home of Detroit, Michigan. Considered the most financially challenged cultural center in the city, the 49-year-old museum has experienced a severe financial decline, but has yet to garner as much monetary support or media support as some of its local peer institutions, most notably the Detroit Institute of Art.

The worldwide press rang the alarm when informed last month that the art museum would have to sell of its fine art to help reduce the city’s $18 billion debt owed to bondholders and pensioners. More recently, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, published an extensive plan proposing a $100 million fundraising deal and $350 million from the state that could potentially save DIA from auctioning its  items.

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Any similar multimillion dollar plans for the Wright museum (which currently has a $4.5 million budget) have yet to be seen, placing the predominantly Black city’s community cultural hub in major jeopardy.

“I don’t think we can sustain it without support from the city, I don’t think we can,” Wright CEO Juanita Moore told Al Jazeera.

Here’s a snapshot of the Wright’s current status:

  • Detroit went from contributing more than $2 million annually to the museum’s budget of roughly $7 million to–post-recession–offering $900,000 to a current budget of $4.5 million.
  • A majority of funding previously came from the city’s auto industry philanthropies, but provisions have been drastically lower from some, such as GM, and non-existent from others like former benefactor, Chrysler.
  • In addition to a wave of salary cuts and even larger staff cuts, the museum has had to turn to non-traditional partnerships with external groups.
  • Museum membership has dropped from 20,000 to 7,000 in recent years, a decline attributed to the lack of foundation money covering school children’s memberships.

Having served as the executive director of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and founding executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Moore understands that while external partnerships are “not the way most museums get stuff done,” these unconventional collaborations, such as their recent partnering with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, have become a necessity.

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“But it’s been a really good one to help us get more people involved,” said Moore. “Most people don’t have any idea what it takes or what it costs to do it.”

Founded in 1965 in the offices of civil rights activist and Black obstetrician Charles H. Wright, the museum includes 30,000 items, including letters of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, several prototypes of inventions, like the stoplight and gas mask, created by African American scientists, and a special collection of documents related to the Underground Railroad.

While rich in history, none of the museum’s items hold enough monetary value to help significantly reduce the city’s overwhelming debt.

“If you say you’re in such dire straits that we may not survive, the people who give you money will say, ‘Let’s put money somewhere else,’” Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley told Al Jazeera. “But you can’t not be realistic…Unlike with the DIA, there aren’t a lot of deep pockets.”

In her recent columns on the Wright’s current struggles, Riley has also sparked much of the initial debate on who the museum ought to rely on for salvation and who should be held accountable.

“If those of us of all colors and backgrounds who value the museum don’t fight for it, why should any foundation write a check?” wrote Riley, pointing to the sweeping influence that one local millionaire’s donation to the DIA had on 130 other individuals who subsequently donated funds.

“All it takes is one person to step up, and others to echo that call with their actions and words. That might be what leads foundations and leaders — and perhaps the governor — to believe that something is worthwhile.”

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