Detroit Bankruptcy Endangers Future of Black History Museum

In the Cultural Center of Detroit, it’s impossible to miss the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, with its enormous black and gold African mask hanging above its main entrance. A quick stroll through the main floor indicates all is well. And the sun is finally pouring through the massive skylights, covered way too long in snow from Michigan’s second-most-brutal winter.

Behind the scenes, Wright CEO Juanita Moore is hustling. You see, the Charles H. Wright is owned by the city of Detroit, and as the city navigates through Chapter 11, this more than 30,000-piece collection and the 125,000-square-foot property that holds could go up for grabs.

RELATED: JUDGE RULES ON DETROIT BANKRUPTCY

Much attention has been paid to the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the world-renowned collection that certainly deserves its accolades. But it’s not just the DIA facing uncertain times; almost all of Detroit’s publicly held museums, which include the Wright, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, have assets at risk. (Not at risk, for those curious, is the famous, privately owned Motown Historical Museum.)

When Detroit filed for bankruptcy, no men in black suits came into the museum and started snatching paintings off the walls, packing them up in U-Hauls and shipping them to parts unknown. It doesn’t quite work like that. If worse comes to worst, though, something like that could happen if the city’s state-appointed emergency manager doesn’t strike a unanimous deal with creditors to pay down the city’s debts. One of Detroit’s creditors has gone as far to solicit its own billion-dollar bids for Detroit’s artwork.

Moore has no trouble keeping up with these ever-changing developments. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has predicted that the city will be wrapped up with bankruptcy proceedings in October 2014, but has plans to appoint a financial oversight committee for the city. Between now and whenever, “these issues should be settled...and then you have to go through the hard road of rebuilding,” Moore says.

The Wright is named for prominent Black Detroit doctor who founded the museum in his home in 1965. In 1997, it became the largest African-American history collection in the world when it settled into its current digs. Since 1978, the city of Detroit has been one of the biggest funders -- in the last decade, the biggest -- of the museum, and for years leased the land it sat on.

That tie-up with the city started to fray as the city’s legacy costs, particularly pensions owed to retirees, mounted. Detroit’s contributions got smaller and smaller in harder times -- “we lost $1.5 million in the last three years,” Moore says. Government grants, once a secondary source of income, now is the primary source, followed by earned income and individual gifts.

The Wright also saw another issue: Declining membership. Its current 8,500-member tally is nothing to dismiss, but it’s down from five-digit highs of years past. It wasn’t due to Detroit’s declining population; members remained active even if they left for the suburbs. It’s mainly due to college students not renewing their memberships, or older members dying out.

Most African-American museums nationwide are owned or partly owned by the municipalities they serve and have funding structures not unlike the Wright’s. Moore, however, envisions members -- “the community,” she says fondly -- being the primary source of income and relying less on the city, though not totally absolving them of their obligations.

To maintain its membership and boost contributions from that pool, the Wright has embarked on a number of innovations. Moore points to the museum’s newly implemented “Give a Grand, Make a Million” campaign, where 1,000 members each give $1,000. That’s already been matched with a $100,000 gift from one of the museum’s wealthiest donors.

“We have to depend very heavily on the community to support this institution,” Moore says.

It has reinforced its status as a pillar in Southeast Michigan, reminding schools, churches and organizations about its vast array of youth and adult programs, ranging from literacy programs encouraging students to read at their respective grade level; a children’s book program endowed by the Knight Foundation; STEM summer camps; scientific film series; health screenings; and Sunday history and “hustle” programs, in honor of the beloved line dance unique to Detroiters.

Last, the museum is expanding its programming options. Though always a gathering spot for those looking for a performance or celebration venue, the Wright still flies under the radar as a proper host. That’s changing as more people take notice of what space the museum offers, Wright says.

The museum hosted a memorial service for late Jackson, Mississippi mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, a Detroit native. On the same day, Black Women Rock!, a concert hosted by poet jessica Care moore was going on down the hall, and a baby shower with African drummers was hosted in a different room. “That was an exciting day in the museum,” Moore laughs.

In the coming weeks, the Wright will welcome a grandson of Nelson Mandela, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and Myrlie Evers, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Perhaps as a sign of changing times for museums, the Wright has also partnered with other institutions for upcoming programming, such as the Flint Institute of Arts -- another museum in a financially troubled Michigan city.

“It tells a national story,” Moore says about the Wright’s significance in the Black diaspora. “[It’s] all of our stories.”

As for the museum’s future after bankruptcy? It’ll still be here, but Moore remains aware that as long as the city struggles with finances, the museum won’t be completely out of the woods.

“I don’t think anything will be OK in five to six months,” she says. “But I do think we will have made great strides. But we will have to look at a fundamental new model. It’s a much more holistic approach to sustaining the institute.”