Mark McCormick: Kansas African American Museum not giving up; we’re moving on

04/20/2014 12:00 AM

04/18/2014 6:44 PM

Upon learning the news that the Kansas African American Museum’s board voted to return leased riverfront property to the city of Wichita, some thoughtful people who care about our mission asked if perceptions that we were “giving up” worried us.

That’s a valid question.

The museum has had years to muster the capital campaign required to break ground on the leased land, and simply hasn’t delivered. The dream of a riverfront museum housing the collected works of Gordon Parks is about the only thing some people in our community know about us. That ship sailed years ago.

We’re also nearly surrounded by the Sedgwick County Jail. That makes parking tough and walk-in traffic rare. We don’t want to get too comfortable where we are.

And as much as we love the old place, built by its African-American congregation on nights and weekends, the lack of proper climate controls makes caring for our expensive and delicate collection prints, photographs and statuary a high-wire act.

Consequently, we really do understand how people on the outside looking in might consider our decision a capitulation. But this wasn’t an easy decision. It was, in fact, wrenching.

So why give this land back?

Because triage is not a long-term strategy. We’ve made strides since last year in turning around our finances, but we have a ways to go to gain a secure footing.

Because we didn’t want to draw out the process. Our December deadline looms, and the city has been so helpful throughout. We thought it would be selfish and unfair to ask for yet-another extension.

Because we need to place the museum on a strong financial foundation. That would be difficult to do while concurrently developing a capital campaign.

Because what we’ve been doing for the past year has been working. The museum finished 2013 in the black for the first time in nearly five years and closed the year debt-free.

We’ve more than tripled membership since February 2013, and created partnerships with the University of Kansas and the Wichita Griots, as well as the NAACP and the Urban League. We deeply appreciate, too, Sedgwick County’s steady and generous support.

We’ve also earned the critical support of the Kansas Health Foundation and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, which respectively keep us tethered to our social as well as our historical/cultural moorings.

The measure of success we’ve experienced tells us more is possible. Our board chairwoman, Lee Williams, tells us often that windshields are bigger than rearview mirrors for a reason. We can learn from our past, but pressing forward is far more important.

So again, this isn’t an unconditional surrender.

It’s the tactical retreat before the bold, forward push.

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