Museum educator Yolanda Jack leads a tour at the Wright Museum, which greets 250,000 visitors each year.Jeffrey Smith for Al Jazeera America
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.”