Black-Oriented Museums Are Lacking Black Donors

Boxing great Muhammad Ali, center, and his wife, Lonnie, join performers at the gala opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. The center has received little financial support from prominent black Americans.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali, center, and his wife, Lonnie, join performers at the gala opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. The center has received little financial support from prominent black Americans. (By John Sommers Ii -- Reuters)

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE -- The glamour, the popping camera lights of the paparazzi, and an impressive lineup of movie stars such as Jim Carrey, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Chris Tucker gave a glitzy Hollywood feel to the grand opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in this horse-racing town.

Lonnie Ali, the boxing champ's wife, could barely hold back tears as she stood in the shadow of the $75 million center, with its soaring butterfly roof and its dozens of exhibits, replete with LeRoy Nieman paintings of "the Greatest" in his glory days.

"This," Lonnie said as her husband stood by, "is the culmination of a . . . dream."

The dream, however, has received little financial support from prominent black Americans. After a two-year campaign, only one monied black contributor, ex-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who is British, gave a substantial amount, $300,000.

The Ali Center's experience is not unique. In recent years there has been a proliferation of black-oriented museums, memorials and cultural centers that cost millions to run. But some museum executives wonder how well they will fare when several existing institutions are struggling and corporate sponsorships often do not cover the costs of day-to-day operations. Among the problems, some experts say, is a lack of contributions from black people -- especially prominent entertainers and athletes -- whose history is celebrated by these institutions.

"We have yet work cut out for us to cultivate the interest of African Americans and athletes of many cultures," said Michael Fox, executive director of the Ali Center. "It hasn't happened yet at the level we expected. I think it has been a disappointment to date."

To be sure, black people are, in fact, generous when it comes to charitable contributions. A 2003 study reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that black Americans who give to charity donate 25 percent more of their discretionary income than white donors.

In the Coalition for New Philanthropy's 2004 study of minority giving in the New York City area, black Americans of all age groups contributed just slightly more than the nation's other two major ethnic groups, Latino and Asian. But art museums and cultural centers were low on the priority list of all minority groups.

As the Ali Center fundraisers discovered, their money goes instead to churches, schools and scholarships. "Art is important in some parts of the black community, but if you're giving money and have to choose between education and giving to a museum, you would give to education," said Mary Beth Gasman, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book on black philanthropy.

The Ali Center's experience was telling. Given Ali's status as an icon and role model for many in the world of sports, the center recruited sports commentator Bob Costas and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a boxing aficionado, to raise money from athletes. They were surprised by the poor results.

"I was grossly disappointed," Meeks said. "I know there have been difficulties with several . . . professionals who are paid well and might not be paid well if it were not for Ali breaking that [racial] barrier.

"We called and oftentimes we didn't get called back," Meeks said. "Then I tried to get other people who called, people who had connections, and we heard, 'I'll get back to you on that,' and they never got back to us. I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would be difficult to raise money for Ali."


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