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Saturday, August 30, 2008,12:22 AM
The Color of Money
by Julia M. Klein

The first African American presidential campaign is drawing vast sums; meanwhile, museums dedicated to black history are struggling.

In July 2007, Vonita Foster traveled to New York at the invitation of the American Express Foundation to make the case for the United States National Slavery Museum. Her goal: a major gift for the $200 million project, which is hurting for funds and has yet to break ground at its scenic Fredericksburg, Virginia, site.

After the meeting, "we really felt positive," recalls Foster, the museum's executive director. "I think they were very excited about it. I don't know what happened after that."

In a letter last August, Leslie Schiftic, the foundation's manager of philanthropy, praised the museum as "a wonderful project that should generate much interest." But, she continued, "unfortunately, our plate is very full and we are unable to provide sponsorship for this year." Foster's request for clarification went unanswered.

While Foster says that the recession and competition from the presidential campaigns have certainly hurt fundraising efforts, the underlying problem may be the museum's subject matter. "People think of slavery and they think of guilt," she says. "When we try to raise funds, we have found that people are very uncomfortable, corporations are uncomfortable."

The slavery institution is not the only African American museum to face challenges ( view slideshow), even as the country may be on the cusp of having its first black president. When you discuss slavery and civil rights, "it's a tough conversation," says Lawrence Pijeaux Jr., president and C.E.O. of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and former president of the Association of African American Museums. The problem is magnified, says Pijeaux, when "you have an emerging number of cultural institutions looking for financial support from this shrinking pool of resources." Among the museums vying for cash are the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in 2015, and the four-year-old National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Meanwhile, "African Americans don't have a history of giving to museums," Pijeaux says.

"It takes generations to establish giving patterns," says Vernon Courtney, president of the A.A.A.M. and director of the museum and archive at Hampton University, a historically black school. "The black community is very, very generous in giving, but it gives its money to the church. This African American museum movement is relatively young. Those patterns have not yet developed."

The amount of discretionary income in the African American community remains limited, Courtney adds. "Whenever you start a project," he says, people inevitably ask, "'Have you tried Bill Cosby? Have you tried Oprah?' as if 999,000 other folks aren't trying to get their attention at the same time."

Cosby has given about $1.2 million to the U.S. National Slavery Museum. Oprah Winfrey sits on the council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a $500 million behemoth that will open on the National Mall. Winfrey donated $1 million to Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004 to mark its launch.

Even so, the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot Freedom Center has been cash-strapped and has fallen short of its ambition to serve as an engine for tourism and economic development in the region. According to Freedom Center C.E.O. Donald Murphy, the museum is too large for its mission, and its annual attendance projections—which began at 1 million and have slipped steadily downward—were wildly optimistic. Visitation has leveled off at about 170,000, he says.

In response, Murphy slashed the annual budget from $12 million to $7 million and reduced staffing by 30 percent. To boost income, he wants to lease out space in the building and develop temporary exhibitions with box office clout. Instead of being pigeonholed as an African American museum, he wants the Freedom Center positioned as "an institution of conscience that has a broad appeal to anyone who is interested in freedom in the world."

Sometimes the issue isn't dreaming big, but starting too small. Romona Riscoe Benson, president and C.E.O. of the null since 2005, says that many "ethnically specific" museums, with grass-roots origins in the 1960s and '70s, lacked endowment funds. "Folks are just looking to have a museum and don't always think about long-term support strategies," she says.

The Philadelphia museum, founded for the 1976 Bicentennial with city funding and without an endowment, foundered for years, temporarily laying off its staff and reporting nearly $600,000 in debt before Benson took over. By negotiating with creditors, reconstituting the board, raising visitation, and appealing to Philadelphia's corporate and foundation communities, Benson achieved a balanced budget. A new core exhibition will open next year, she says, and the museum is planning a move from its cramped quarters at the edge of the historic district to a larger, more centrally located building.

Juanita Moore, president and C.E.O. of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, took charge last year under better circumstances—near the completion of the museum's $43.5 million capital campaign, launched in 2002 as a last-ditch attempt to save it from bankruptcy. But the 43-year-old museum, like the Freedom Center, is still looking for ways to boost its earned income in what Moore calls "a very tough economic climate for all museums."

"Everybody's trying to raise money. Everyone has their own turf to take care of," says Richmond, Virginia, mayor L. Douglas Wilder, founder of the U.S. National Slavery Museum. "I don't know that it's a problem of competition…It's a problem of having access to funding, having doors open."

Wilder and Foster would like to begin construction of a $10 million visitor center this year, but that prospect appears to be receding. The museum has raised about $50 million, including pledges and in-kind donations, but Foster says that all but about $3 million to $5 million has been spent for architectural plans, exhibit design, site preparation, and other preliminary work.

Slavery museum supporter Amaré Stoudemire, a star power forward and center for the Phoenix Suns, says that he is trying to organize an event that would raise at least $200,000 to $400,000 from black athletes and entertainers. But those plans have yet to crystallize.

"No, I'm not discouraged," insists Wilder, the grandson of slaves, as well as a former governor of Virginia who declared himself a presidential candidate for the 1992 election. "We're going to build a museum. The only question is when."

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