White River State Park and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Arts Funding and Attractions and Indiana Avenue

Black history museum loses site, may land on Indiana Ave.

May 12, 2008

The clock is running out on plans to build the Indiana Museum of African American History in White River State Park, but the ambitious project may find a new home on nearby Indiana Avenue.

Less than two weeks before the museum's option on a two-acre parcel of park land expires, backers were talking with IUPUI about locating the museum on unspecified university-owned land along Indiana Avenue.

"We've had good, positive conversations," said Chief Administrative Officer J. Terry Clapacs, adding that any change would be considered as part of ongoing master planning for the IUPUI campus.

He termed the talks preliminary, but said a decision could come "within the next couple of months." The museum would make a good addition, Clapacs said, because it would allow IUPUI to give back to the community.

"IUPUI was carved out of neighborhoods over the past 50 years," he said. "This would be a good way for us to participate and contribute to the heritage that's found throughout that part of the city."

One of Indianapolis' six cultural districts, Indiana Avenue was once the social, commercial, spiritual and educational hub of Indianapolis' black community.

Proposed in the mid-1990s, the museum has yet to pick up much momentum.

Backers were energized in 2004, when the White River State Park Commission granted an option on undeveloped land, now home to a surface parking lot just west of the NCAA Hall of Champions.

Locally based Blackburn Architects Inc. drew up plans for a $50 million, 120,000-square-foot building, and the board hired museum professional Rita Organ to be executive director.

The museum raised $750,600 in 2004. By the end of 2006, Organ was gone and annual fund-raising results had dwindled to less than $200,000--even as the cost of the project increased to $60 million to cover the price of adding parking.

Construction never began.

In an interview with IBJ last spring, museum board President Lacy Johnson conceded a back-up plan is in the works but declined to provide details.

"The vision is the same," he said in April 2007. "We've refocused our attention on some potential collaborations with additional stakeholders."

Johnson, an attorney at Ice Miller LLP, hasn't returned repeated phone calls and e-mails since. He agreed to an interview for this article, later rescheduling it and then not showing up for the meeting. Other board officers didn't respond to messages.

State Rep. William Crawford and late Indiana Black Expo leader Rev. Charles Williams came up with the vision for the museum. They wanted a collection that would highlight the "overall contributions that African-Americans made to the world, nation and Indiana history," Crawford said.

The museum's option on the White River State Park parcel expires May 20 if significant progress hasn't been made in construction. It is the sole remaining developable land in the downtown park, which has been increasingly busy since the 2002 opening of the Indiana State Museum and outdoor amphitheater The Lawn began its successful concert series in 2004.

Park Executive Director Bob Whitt said he routinely fields inquiries from organizations interested in moving to the park, but none have asked specifically about that parcel. The parks commission hasn't heard anything official about the museum's plans despite the imminent deadline.

If it moves to Indiana Avenue, the museum will be in good company. The street also is home to the historic Madame Walker Theatre Center, which has its own plans for a $10 million capital campaign to expand its theater space.

"We've got our little piece of land and we've got to maximize it to keep everything we've held onto for 80 years," said President Cynthia Bates. "If [the museum] is going to contribute [to the neighborhood], then that's wonderful."

As with many ideas, money has been a stumbling point for the museum. Raising $60 million--if that's still the goal--would be a Herculean task.

"Planning is sort of in a dormant state right now because trying to find the appropriate resources to fund the project is becoming more and more difficult," Crawford said.

The group is looking for a "lead" donor who could give enough to assure other contributors that the project will really happen-something most notfor-profits are searching for, said Mike Laudick, principal at local fund-raising consultant Laudick Brown & Associates.

"If you get a really significant lead gift, it can really launch a project," he said.

But the next questions donors always ask are, "How much will it cost to run the museum?" and "What plans are in place to fund operations?"

"People are often told to start small first," Laudick said. "If the project's successful, they can look for a larger facility."

While Laudick said it's not unusual for an idea to be in the works a decade or more, Crawford said he thinks this year is make-or-break time for the museum.

"This is the critical year," he said. "We must get some movement before the end of this year."

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