But Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip, who spent two years on the budget committee overseeing the museum's finances, called the situation "deplorable."

"Year after year, this museum has not met its mark," the Harford County lawmaker said. "Year after year, it's gotten worse. Yet year after year, the state makes up the gap. ... It does not make sense to keep spending at least $2 million of taxpayer dollars every year on a museum that less than 2 percent of the population in the metro area visits."

The museum's privately raised revenues fell to a low in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, when it brought in just $636,000, according to museum officials, but more than doubled the following year, when the institution generated $1.43 million. Such revenues can include individual and corporation donations, admissions fees, exhibit and facility rentals, membership dues and grants from the city and federal government.

An organizational audit completed in March 2012 by the museum's paid consultant, the DeVos Institute, concluded that the Lewis staff "has been quite frugal," according to the museum.

When the museum opened on June 25, 2005, backers predicted that it would draw 300,000 visitors during its first year, and half that total thereafter. They forecast a membership that would swell to 20,000.

In reality, annual attendance has exceeded 50,000 only once in the past five years, and membership this year topped out at 904.

Baltimore donated a prime parcel of real estate on a high-visibility corner of President and Pratt streets for the museum. The state footed the bill for 90 percent of the $34 million construction costs for the five-story building with a dramatic black, red and yellow facade. And Maryland had a rich history of black life to be mined — from Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

But there were signs even before the Lewis opened that the museum faced an uphill battle. As far back as 2002, there were plans to build a new national African-American history museum on the Mall in Washington.

Meanwhile, several established African-American museums nationwide were struggling. In 2004, the African-American Museum in Philadelphia laid off its entire 19-member staff because of a budget shortfall. That same year, only a $510,000 advance from the city of Detroit kept its African-American museum from shutting down for the summer.

"All of these African-American museums had exactly the same experience," said Mary Alexander, who directs the Museum Assistance Program for the Maryland Historical Trust. "They open with great panache. But eight months later, you walk in and the places are empty."

Leslie King-Hammond, president of the Lewis' board, didn't respond to a request to be interviewed for this article. But in September 2011, she said the board had dismissed its marketing and development directors, as well as Sanders' predecessor, in a bid to fine-tune the museum's mission to emphasize art more and history less.

"Talking about slavery is boring, it's painful and it's uncomfortable," she said in an interview with The Sun. "I prefer to teach the inspired stories of people who survive in spite of extraordinary odds. … We have made an intellectual decision to refine our mission, and we need a team in place that can address the entire vision of our board. This is not about attendance. Attendance has never been better."

In the 15 years since planning for the new museum began, the Lewis has had four executive directors.

"It is not uncommon for executive directors, especially in a young institution, to experience tenures of three to four years," Sanders wrote. "With each stage in an institution's career come different challenges and opportunities. Often these require different skill-sets and aptitudes."

The Lewis has also been buffeted by forces outside its control, including the nationwide recession. No one could have guessed that in 2006, the state's two largest museums — the Walters Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art — would stop charging admission. The Lewis occasionally offers a free-admission weekend, and attendance rises noticeably, according to Sanders.

While museum planners expected the Lewis' core audience to be made up of African-American museum-goers, they also have sought to appeal to visitors of all races.

"It is not just the African American community that should support this museum, but our whole state community," Sanders wrote. "This history is American history."

Still, such specialized museums face extraordinary challenges, experts say. Major state and regional museums, for example, are reaching out with some African-American-themed exhibitions.

Several studies have shown that African-Americans rarely spend their leisure time in museums. According to data from the American Alliance of Museums, African-Americans made up 11.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2008 but accounted for just 5.9 percent of museum visitors.

"African-American museums are constantly trying to convince our community that we offer a meaningful and valuable form of recreation," said Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums.

"For many people in our community, visiting a museum isn't even on their radar. It isn't where their entertainment dollars go. Instead they spend their time and money at concerts or sporting events, family outings or church activities."

Oregon State University professor John Falk has spent 40 years studying museum demographics. The factor that best predicts whether adults will visit museums, he said, is whether they were taken to museums by their parents when they were children.

"African-American adults don't go to museums today because their grandparents and great-grandparents didn't go to museums," Falk said. "Their ancestors didn't go because some of them were living in parts of the South where there were no museums. The few museums that did exist were segregated, and black people weren't allowed inside."

Black also said that the wealth distribution in the United States makes it difficult for the primarily African-American trustees of black cultural organizations to raise money. Comparatively few of the top 1 percent of the nation's earners are African-American, he said, and they are often solicited for a wide range of donations.

Wanda Watts, a Baltimore public relations executive and events planner, hopes the Lewis can address its problems.

Watts, who has visited the Lewis four or five times a year since it opened, was especially moved by an exhibit of photographs of historic Pennsylvania Avenue from the 1960s and 1970s, when she was a child. "There were black hotels and black clubs and a theater," she said.

"The photographs brought back so many memories, of people as well as the place."

If the Lewis were ever to close, she said, something precious could be lost — "the voices of the community and the stories that are not being portrayed by other venues in the city."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com