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FEATURE ‌ Vision Rich, Cash Poor

IAAM organizers undaunted by $69 million price tag

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Gretta Middleton, the newly hired consulting director for the International African American Museum, will help lead the charge for public and private funding
  • Gretta Middleton, the newly hired consulting director for the International African American Museum, will help lead the charge for public and private funding

Over the past six years, there's been lots of talk about planning the International African American Museum, but there hasn't been a lot of chatter on fund-raising, likely because there's been just about none. Organizers stress that the development of the museum has been linear up to this point — you need a plan before you can get nonprofit status, and you need nonprofit status before you can start most of your fund-raising.

What's been provided so far has largely been government money, but plans are under way for a public fund-raising effort to kick off later this year, including a celebrity gala. Meanwhile, all levels of government are expected to dig back in their pockets to help meet the museum's $69 million price tag.

The museum's board of directors approved a strategic plan last month that lays out the years-long process of development from now until the opening of the doors. With the exhibit, design, and construction aspects costing the lion's share of the $69 million, one of the strategic plan's first recommendations is a feasibility study on the potential to raise the capital needed to make the museum a reality.

"We really do believe it's doable," says Gretta Middleton, who was hired last month as consulting director for the museum board. Middleton stresses the museum doesn't need every dollar in the bank before construction begins, noting the cost includes the first year operating expenses.

Once it's open, the strategic plan notes that the museum likely won't generate the revenue needed to pay the bills, with every visitor paying the expected $8 admission price costing the museum more than $30. That means organizers will have to find about $1.5 million a year in continued support. Almost any museum has some form of government support; the strategic plan notes other African American museums receive government support that's anywhere between 4 percent and 52 percent of their annual budgets.

The city contributed $250,000 for the museum, with some of that money already spent for planning, and has agreed to donate the land near the South Carolina Aquarium and other tourist draws.

The city of Charleston is prepared to contribute to the construction of the museum as well as to the continued cost to maintain it, just as the city supports other worthwhile cultural institutions, says Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

"(African American history) is a very significant part of this city's history," he says.

Aside from the city money, the museum is expected to receive $500,000 from the state later this year from a funding bill approved in June, but considering the scope of the project, that contribution will likely have to be the first of many.

"There are several senators that fully support the museum," Middleton says. "There's an expectation this will not be a one-time allocation."

But the museum board also will consider hiring a lobbyist to be an advocate in Columbia to help local legislators spread the word about the museum.

"This is a state project," she says. "That's very important and we're going to have to really clarify that a little more than we have."

There's also the potential to be included in a state borrowing program that's occasionally offered up to nonprofits through legislative bond bills. That would allow the museum to pay back money for the capital costs over time at a reduced interest rate, but the strategic plan warns that the organizers should avoid debt when possible.

On the national field of government funding, the Charleston museum follows a string of African American offerings in other regions, including museums in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Louisville, Ky., as well as a planned museum in Pittsburgh and a $500 million museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) has included $2 million for the Charleston museum in an appropriations bill awaiting Senate approval and he says more federal dollars will be on the way, regardless of the other museums.

"It's a very easy sale to the members of Congress," he says, noting 40 percent of the slaves came through Charleston Harbor. "That's unique and you're not going to find it anywhere else."

The bulk of his fund-raising efforts have been delayed because the museum plan had not been developed. Clyburn says he's ready to fight for museum funding, but stresses it won't be overnight.

"The Africans came here in 1619," he says. "That's about 400 years. I'm not going to try to do this in four months."

Private fund-raising is expected to kick off this winter with the gala event. The museum board has contacted a few politicians and celebrities to host the event, but Middleton says there are no solid commitments yet on that front.

The success for other African American museums has been spotty. The strategic plan notes that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati has struggled since opening in 2004, but the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provides more than $8 million in ancillary income annually for the Alabama city.

Meanwhile, the museum is contacting national and international groups for their support. Middleton notes that there may be some convincing to be done, but organizers here are ready to defend the plan.

"There's some doubters," she says. "But there's a niche here that no other museum can fill because of the unique history in the state."

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