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Kansas African American Museum returns city land, postpones new building construction

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 4:41 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 6:55 p.m.

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Plans to build a new Kansas African American Museum are on hold.

The land has been given back to the city: 1.2 acres in the museum district, leased to the museum for $1 a year in 2005 with the expectation money would be raised toward the construction of a new building.

“We cannot be land hoarders,” said Lee Williams, chairman of the museum board of directors, “particularly if an opportunity comes up for someone else to build there.”

Plans to build a new museum have been postponed for up to five years in order to allow the museum to gain a strong financial footing, said Mark McCormick, the museum’s executive director.

Officials hope to relocate downtown. The land the city leased to the museum was on riverfront property near Exploration Place in the 700 block of West Central.

“The city was extremely generous with its gift and in giving the museum extensions,” McCormick said.

But in recent months museum leaders have been faced with a difficult decision – they could have broken ground on the new land in the hopes of producing a viable capital campaign, or they could wait and build that capital campaign while also building a more comprehensive vision of the museum’s potential.

“Even though we call ourselves the Kansas African American Museum, for years we have been known as telling only the story of Wichita,” McCormick said. “We’re looking at making the museum more Kansas focused, incorporating the stories of people like Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks and others that grew up in Kansas in places other than Wichita.”

The museum, located in the former Calvary Baptist Church at 601 N. Water, was built in 1917 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of a few surviving buildings from Wichita’s black business district and features works from nationally known artists such as Samella Lewis and Elizabeth Catlett.

But when Sedgwick County expanded its jail facilities in the 1990s it placed the museum within feet of the jail – making the old church building a less-than-desirable location for a museum as well as reducing the number of available parking spaces. The building has also been a source of contention because its collections lack a climate-controlled facility and there are few wheelchair-accessible entry points.

In 2005, the museum was among 10 selected to receive a national preservation award from black history and culture magazine American Legacy. That same year, the city promised the museum prime riverfront property on the condition that it raise millions for a new building – with the understanding a new building would be built by 2011.

But that was before the nation’s economy collapsed and then-director Eric Key resigned amid travel-budget and fundraising questions. The museum board officials originally proposed a new museum at a cost of $29.5 million; later the target was lowered to between $8 million and $12 million.

Ultimately, a decision needed to be made, McCormick said Tuesday.

Last year, for the first time in five years, the museum made a profit of about $19,000 to $20,000, McCormick said. He hopes to continue that trend and grow the museum’s resources.

“We’re not giving up,” McCormick said.

“No,” Williams said, “We are looking at things realistically.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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