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DETROIT — The tall woman in the leopard print gown and grove of dreadlocks flowing onto her shoulders had just moved the group through some of the grimmest moments in American history. She had walked her audience of local schoolchildren through the bowels of a replica slave ship, described in detail the horrors of the antebellum South, told of the journey through Jim Crow segregation and the brutal lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan.
“And every time, the African-American people survived,” she exclaimed. “They would say, ‘We shall overcome!’ And they always did!”
The docent might have been speaking hopefully about the challenge facing not black America but her own imperiled institution, the Charles H. Wright Museum. The Wright, the nation’s largest museum of African-American history, waits anxiously to see whether bankrupt Detroit will be able to provide any funding in the coming budget cycle.
“I don’t think we can sustain it without support from the city, I don’t think we can,” said Juanita Moore, the Wright’s CEO.
The 49-year-old museum’s plight has been all but ignored in a bankruptcy process in which the international headlines have most often focused on whether the Detroit Institute of Arts would be forced to sell off its treasures to help reduce the city’s $18 billion debt. In the 120-page plan released Friday by Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, the DIA figures prominently, with a bevy of museum benefactors promising to raise $100 million in a complex deal that would shield it from auctioning its fine art. (Orr’s proposal must be approved by a judge and relies, among other contingencies, on the state legislature providing $350 million.)
Not mentioned in the plan were any of the other cultural institutions owned, operated or in some way funded by the city’s coffers, of which the Wright traditionally receives the largest sum and is considered the most financially challenged.
The museum, which expects to greet 250,000 people this year, has more than 30,000 items, including letters of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, a key collection of documents related to the Underground Railroad and several prototypes of inventions, such as the gas mask and stoplight, created by African-American scientists. None of it, though, is valuable enough to put a dent in what the city owes bondholders and pensioners, so it has largely stayed out of that conversation.
A center of community life
The Wright is a luminous 125,000-square-foot beige structure with a 65-foot-high glass dome that’s wider than the state capitol’s dome. Since the building’s 1997 debut, the institution has sat a block from the DIA and has proved itself a center of community activity in this predominantly black city. In 2005, for instance, thousands streamed through when Parks, who lived much of her life in Detroit, lay in state in the rotunda. Just last fall, the Wright hosted the final 2013 mayoral debate.
Yet the museum, founded in 1965 in the offices of black obstetrician and civil rights activist Charles H. Wright, has struggled. Its current budget is $4.5 million, of which Detroit contributed $900,000. That’s a dramatic reduction from the pre-recession era when the museum’s budget was closer to $7 million and the city provided more than $2 million a year. Much of the rest of the funds used to come from Detroit’s auto industry philanthropies, but Chrysler has yet to resume giving, and though GM has returned, it’s “still way down,” Moore said. Ford, she said, “stepped up when we lost the others.”
In recent years, Moore has reduced expenses to the bare minimum, cutting the staff of 64 to 32, supplementing the loss with volunteers and interns. Wright executives took a 15 percent salary cut, and the remaining staff earned 10 percent less. At the same time, membership fell from 20,000 to 7,000 because, Moore said, foundation money often covered memberships of thousands of schoolchildren.
The museum has also had to resort to unorthodox partnerships with various outside groups such as the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which paid half the $35,000 cost of a yearlong exhibition celebrating the historic organization’s 100th anniversary.
“It’s just not the way most museums get stuff done, but this has been a necessity,” said Moore, whose past posts have included serving as executive director of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and founding executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. “But it’s been a really good one to help us get more people involved. Most people don’t have any idea what it takes or what it costs to do it.”
Martha Jones, who teaches law and African-American history at the University of Michigan, is untroubled by those alliances. Jones said she hadn’t worried much about the Wright until last year, when the news broke that Orr wanted to sell off artwork from the DIA and she realized “it’s not clear where and how cultural institutions fit into the many visions of a new or remade or reorganized city of Detroit.
“I’m a New Yorker originally, and I remember my hometown on the verge of bankruptcy many years ago,” said Jones, whose students frequent the Wright archives for research and museum-studies training. “What I know about New York and its recovery is that cultural institutions were essential to the long-term health and the remaking of New York ... It is not a museum that belongs to only African-Americans. It is an asset to all people of Detroit and the state and the region regardless of their race.”
Whose job to save the Wright?
The museum’s troubles might have escaped the public eye altogether were it not for the alarm set off by Rochelle Riley, a longtime Detroit Free Press columnist who writes often on racial issues. Riley, whose columns have spurred more than $15,000 in donations and gained more than 600 new members in recent weeks, agreed with Jones that it’s not the job of the black community alone to save the Wright.
And Redell Hearn, a museum expert at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the board of the Association of African-American Museums, believes that if the Wright fails it will be a significant statement about what Detroit is. The 2013 election of the city’s first white mayor in 40 years, Hearn said, may be part of a diminished presence for blacks in the city.
“If you have a population of African-Americans who pop up to financially support the museum and politically fight for the museum, then the museum will stay in place,” Hearn said. “If not, and that appears to be what’s happening ... then I don’t see the museum being in the new scheme or plan of what the city will look like.”
Moore is determined to prove that’s not so. In 2011, she began an annual benefit gala that raked in $575,000 last year. In 2012, the Wright began hosting one of the city’s biggest events, the African World Festival, which used to take place elsewhere. The Ford Foundation and the Kresge Foundation have donated money to hire fundraising experts.
“We’re not just waiting for city support, but we know we cannot do it without the city, and I say that because everybody else has tried it,” Moore said, referring to the DIA and the Detroit Zoo. Both receive revenue from dedicated portions of property taxes. “All of these huge institutions with much broader support than we have couldn’t do it.”
Moore is in the precarious position of having to both sound the distress signal and insist that everything will work out. When asked if the Wright could close, she quickly replied, “Absolutely not. Under no circumstances. It is too important.”
Riley said it’s a “very fine line” that Moore must walk.
“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,’” Riley said. “But you can’t not be realistic … Unlike with the DIA, there aren’t a lot of deep pockets.”
The financial stress is having an impact on everyone at the Wright. Jatu Gray, an educator who leads tours, acknowledged as much. She left a job as a paramedic to become a greeter at the Wright and soon became a guide.
"I’ve been praying,” she said. “We need to remain. We need to reach the young people.”