For those who dream of a National African American Museum, something always comes along to jolt them awake. In the early 1990s, everyone from then Democratic representative Gus Savage of Illinois to Republican senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina played the role of No-Doz and squelched the idea. After the 1994 GOP junta in Congress, all arts funding became suspect. Museum advocates believed that as long as Republicans ran Congress, a black museum would be a nonstarter. They may well have been right—but for the wrong reasons.
On its face the black museum movement is moving at full steam, Republican majority be damned. In May, Democratic senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Republican senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum, of Kansas and Pennsylvania respectively, introduced a bill authorizing the creation of a black museum—to be part of the Smithsonian in Washington—and providing $17 million in funding.
But details of the bill have become a sore point for the nearly two-year-old presidential commission charged with creating a blueprint for the museum.
The main concern is an age-old one—location, location, location. The commission would like to put a new building on the Washington Mall, near the Capitol. But the Senate bill ignores the commission’s existing recommendation, instead charging the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents with picking a spot. Perhaps more ominously, it grants the board 18 months to make a decision, a lifetime given the ever-changing balance of power in Congress. Meanwhile, the uncertainty puts a crimp in any fundraising plans. “One of our findings was that a lot of people will want to know where the museum is located before they give money,” says Claudine Brown, the commission’s vice-chair.
Museum backers expected support from Democrats, so they’re finding it particularly vexing that a Democratic sponsor has become a major obstacle to getting their preferred slice of real estate. “This museum has been 88 years in the making, and 74 years have passed since Congress first authorized it, so I would rather see a compromise bill passed than no bill at all,” Commissioner Robert Wilkins wrote Dodd last month. “However, I must register my objection to a compromise that is based on erroneous and insulting reasoning and which seems to indicate that you and your staff intend to block the recommendation of the Presidential Commission at any cost.”
Of the four possible sites, one has haunted museum advocates for the past decade—the Smithsonian’s 122-year-old Arts and Industries building. Some supporters were willing to accept the ancient and little-known facility when it was initially mentioned, seeing it as a springboard to a better facility later. Others hated it. Representative Savage sent an earlier museum bill, which called for using the creaky galleries, back to his committee rather than send a subtle message about the significance of the black experience.
Now museum advocates have more practical concerns. “We’ve had long conversations about the Arts and Industries building. The study revealed that it would take up to $100 million to bring the building up to code,” says Brown. “There are a number of museums who would not lend work to that building because it has climate control issues. It also places a burden on the African American community to raise even more money to get that building up to speed.”
The response from Capitol Hill has been measured, if impersonal. In a written statement, Senator Dodd emphasized his overarching commitment. “This isn’t an issue as to whether a member of Congress is for one particular site or another—it’s about ensuring that this critically important effort moves forward,” he said. “While clearly the Commission has endorsed a number of sites, including the Capitol site, my concern from the start has been—and continues to be—that Congress not stipulate one particular site but allow a panel of experts to choose the appropriate site.”
But the need for expertise was the reason for forming the commission in the first place, says Wilkins. The panel hired expert architects and worked with the National Park Service, spending $2 million on top-shelf opinions. “What more study do we need?” says Wilkins. “I get tired, throughout my life, of having to feel like any recommendation that I make needs more study or rationale than recommendations that are made by other folks.”