Sunday, February 22, 2004

Center opens, visits fall off, who will pay?

Peter Bronson

Will Cincinnati's new museum make it across the river to financial freedom?

Or will the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center be another riverfront tax burden?

It's not popular or politically correct to ask such questions. But if the cost of prime public property is included, government is already paying half the cost of the $110 million museum. And taxpayers may eventually be asked to contribute a lot more after it opens in August, if the museum market is any indication.

In Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is a flop. When it opened in 1997, it was promoted as a national attraction, just like the Freedom Center.

But according to the Detroit Free Press, attendance has swan-dived from more than 200,000 the first year to about 38,000 last year - about equal to one big Reds game.

In Wilberforce, near Dayton, the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center is in a slump. Director Vernon Courtney said hours, staff and programs have been cut. "All museums and cultural institutions are having problems," he said.

In Columbus, the struggling COSI science museum is asking voters for a tax levy to raise $12.4 million a year.

And the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal is asking for a $3.6 million tax levy. The center's deficit in 2003 was $2.4 million.

And then there's the competition. The Freedom Center has been touted locally as a one-of-a-kind national tourism draw. Spokesman Steve DeVillez said, "We don't think there are other museums similar to us."

Web sites show that more than 20 museums devoted to slavery, black history and African-American culture are open or under way in dozens of U.S. cities.

And in December, President Bush signed a bill to build a National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

John Fleming, who was the first director of the Freedom Center and now is vice president at the Cincinnati Museum Center, served as president of the National Association of African American Museums for six years. He said there are 280 African-American museums nationwide.

"Still, only about a dozen to 15 are of major regional, national significance," he said. "I don't think there are too many. There are 12,000 museums nationally. Only 280 are black museums, and only 15 are sizeable."

But the state-funded Wilberforce museum is likely to lose visitors to the Cincinnati Freedom Center. "We certainly are looking at some of the same themes," Courtney said. "It's something to consider."

Courtney and Fleming both said such museums lose support if they put too much emphasis on blacks as victims, or come across as "black-only" museums.

DeVillez said the Freedom Center has broad appeal, and is soliciting an endowment for operating costs.

But given the decline in attendance, even at attractions with wide appeal, I wonder if all museums are cultural mastodons in a computer-video age.

Fleming said African-American history is everyone's history. "A cultural institution with a public mission ought to be publicly supported," he said.

He's right. The Freedom Center is a noble public purpose. But the public was promised it would be self-supporting - and it looks more and more like taxpayers may never be freed from paying the bills.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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