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.

    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.

    “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.”

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