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New national African-American museum could help, hurt smaller institutions

A look inside the new national African-American museum and its distinctive architecture, exhibits, stories and upcoming 3-day festival. (Baltimore Sun video)

When the new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday on the National Mall, a century after it was first proposed, it will be greeted by an outpouring of joy.

The gleaming bronze behemoth standing out amid a phalanx of white marble will be dedicated by President Barack Obama. A three-day free celebration on the grounds of the Washington Monument will include concerts by Public Enemy, the Roots and Living Colour. The demand for admission to the Smithsonian Institution's 19th museum is so great that entrance passes have been snatched up through late November. Museums nationwide are holding special programs commemorating the grand opening.

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But that pride comes mixed with worry for some of the people running America's cultural institutions. Will the colossus siphon off resources that struggling African-American museums need to survive? Or could the deep pockets and unparalleled bargaining power of the Smithsonian actually propel the smaller black regional museums into the spotlight?

"There's been some concern for the past five or six years about the impact the national museum will have on the rest of us," said Samuel Black, immediate past president of the Association of African American Museums.

"As the opening grew closer, a number of our members expressed unease. Some fear they will lose collections to the Smithsonian. Others are concerned about a possible reduction in contributions.

"Your Reginald Lewis museum, being the closest major museum outside the Smithsonian family, is going to have to adjust."

Until Saturday, the 82,000-square-foot, black, yellow and red building on the corner of Pratt and President streets was the largest African-American museum on the East Coast.

But the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture has recently been showing signs of stress — and that was before a new leviathan expected to attract about 5 million visitors this year opened 40 miles away.

The Lewis' attendance for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, was 33,000, or less than a third of the 104,500 visitors during the museum's opening year.

That's been a factor in the museum's failure to meet the state requirement that it raise $2 million annually in private donations, or half its budget. The Lewis has met the mandated sum just once, during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Each year, taxpayers have made up the gap.

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In its first decade, the Lewis has gone through a rapid series of course adjustments in an effort to boost its audience. The museum's programming emphasis shifted from prioritizing history exhibits in 2005 to visual arts exhibits in 2011, to contemporary issues earlier this year. Now it appears poised to reposition itself once again.

Beverly Cooper, chairwoman of the Lewis' board of trustees, said last month that the focus on modern issues came at the cost of neglecting a museum's traditional role of chronicling and preserving the past.

"It took over a little bit," she said of the Lewis' focus on such current controversies as the death of Freddie Gray. "We want to have a balance."

Cooper acknowledged that the titan to the south, with its location on the National Mall and celebrity supporters such as Oprah Winfrey, may prove formidable competition for visitors, artifacts and dollars.

"The board may be a little bit concerned that the new museum could hurt us temporarily," Cooper said.

"We don't have the resources that the national museum has. They have everything. Any time something new comes along, people run to it. I'm sure that attendance for the first year especially is going to be through the roof. Eventually, it will slow down like it does for most museums."

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Black said all institutions specializing in Americana, and not just black museums, face increased competition from the Smithsonian's newest member.

For instance, Black is director of African-American programs for Pennsylvania's largest history museum, the Senator John Heinz History Center. He said he was outraged when he was asked to facilitate a gift to his institution's well-stocked rival.

"People have asked me to put them in touch with the Smithsonian because they have a collection they want to donate," Black said. "I think that's rude.

"I ask them, 'What about giving it to us?' But they want the prestige, the cachet of getting a letter from the Smithsonian saying, 'Thank you for your donation.'"

Lonnie Bunch III, the national museum's new director, is keenly aware of the concerns.

His new museum can put on view not quite 10 percent of its artifacts at any one time. The rest are stored in warehouses and, he said, could potentially be loaned to museums such as the Lewis.

"We felt that it was crucial to be a place of collaboration and part of a national network of museums exploring the African-American experience," he said. "We encourage our visitors to go back and explore their local institutions."

The odds are that at least some people will do as Bunch suggests; according to a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts report, the average art museum visitor in 2012 made 2.7 trips, either to the same institution or a different one.

Wanda Draper, the Lewis' new executive director, is banking on it.

"People know what to expect from an art museum or from the International Spy Museum," she said. "But I don't think they've known what to expect from an African-American museum.

"Defining that experience for future visitors has been a major challenge for us. The more people learn about African-American museums, the more comfortable they'll become with exploring us."

One such avid museumgoer is Baltimorean Gladys Morrow, who frequently visits the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Sooner or later, she said, she'll make the trip to Washington to check out the new national African-American museum.

But her museum closest to her heart will remain the Lewis, which she visits monthly — and has since its inception.

"I have been a fan of that museum for some time," she said. "I almost consider it my second home."

A challenge facing all black museums is that African-Americans statistically attend museums less frequently than do members of other racial groups.

According to the NEA report, 11.9 percent of African-Americans visited an art museum at least once in 2012, and 13.1 percent visited a historic site or landmark. Attendance rates for white people were about twice as high.

Unless those demographic patterns change, black museums — even the one in Washington — will have to attract visitors from all racial groups to survive.

That's why the Smithsonian's leaders have emphasized that though the new museum examines history and culture through an African-American lens, it's intended to help people of all races understand the social and political forces shaping their lives.

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If in the future most of the national museum's visitors are white, Bunch said, he would "absolutely" be comfortable with that outcome.

As he put it:

"Our job is to educate everyone about this important part of American history, not just be a pilgrimage spot for African-Americans."

Bunch even is

"We'll tell people that they should give to their local museums first," he said.

But what if his curators stumble across a real prize, such as the life cast of Baltimore musician Eubie Blake's hands currently on display in the new museum?

"If it's really cool," Bunch said, "it's coming back to D.C."

If you go

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington. Timed tickets are required but are sold out into late November. nmaahc.si.edu

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