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African-American museum pushes back opening date: Group starts public fund-raising campaign Feb. 4

January 30, 2006

Civic leaders announced in 2004 they hoped to raise $50 million to build the Indiana Museum of African American History in White River State Park by 2008.

On the eve of the museum's first public fund-raiser-a black-tie dinner at the downtown Westin Hotel on Feb. 4-officials acknowledge plans have changed for the 120,000-square-foot building.

In 2004, a feasibility study, paid for with $800,000 in seed money raised from groups including Lilly Endowment Inc., showed the aggressive fund-raising and construction schedule was achievable.

"We're not certain that information is accurate today," said Rita Organ, the museum's executive director. "We're ... trying to figure out what's realistic."

Organ said the museum got ahead of itself partly out of respect for Rev. Charles Williams, who passed away in 2004 and co-founded the project with Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis.

"When Rev. Williams was diagnosed with prostate cancer, [organizers] rushed so he could see something tangible before he died," Organ said.

Organ said it's too early to tell if the original vision for the project might change. What's certain is that the doors won't be open before 2010 and earthmovers won't be tilling dirt sooner than 2008. And the price tag is now $60 million. The original estimate didn't include a parking garage.

Nonetheless, Organ is optimistic.

"It's a very ambitious plan," she said, "but I believe it's going to happen."

She doesn't make the statement lightly.

Organ previously served as director of exhibits and collections at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, a museum that undertook a massive, five-year, $110 million capital campaign before opening its doors in 2004.

Some predict her job here will be at least as tough. Local fund-raising consultant Mike Laudick, principal of Laudick Brown & Associates, said Organ will need three to five years to reach her $60 million goal here.

And it won't be easy.

"There have been a lot of capital campaigns in Indianapolis recently," he said. "The [Indianapolis Museum of Art] had a large one. The Indianapolis library had one; several other arts groups in town have had multimillion-dollar campaigns." The key for Organ, Laudick said, is educating the public about the value of the museum-something that takes years. Dr. Lawrence Pijeaux, president of the Association of African American Museums, agreed.

Pijeaux is also president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an organization he said has found it "a little easier to find broad-based funding" now that it's been around 13 years.

Broad-based funding in Indianapolis may be difficult. The Freedom Center got 40 percent of its funding from public sources, but the mayor and governor here have yet to get out the checkbook.

"There is at least the expectation that we will have support from the public sector," said Alpha Blackburn, who leads the museum's board of directors.

The museum has exclusive rights to develop the parcel between the NCAA Hall of Champions and National Institute for Fitness and Sports until May 2008. If it hasn't shown "clear intent" to develop the property by then, White River State Park officials can find a new developer for the tract, which is the last piece of the park open for development.

Park officials, however, are in no hurry to find a new developer, said Bob Whitt, the park's executive director. They remain hopeful the museum will be a success.

So does Blackburn.

"A project of this size takes a while to gather the momentum that is certainly going to be required for the project to continue."

Call the museum at 636-9200 for dinner reservations.
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