In 2001, the genesis began for a Nashville civic icon.
The Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture was slated to anchor the southeast corner of Jefferson Street and what is now Rosa Parks Boulevard, its cutting-edge contemporary design a stark contrast to the Farmers’ Market nearby.
Ten years later — and after missed start and completion dates, fundraising challenges, changes in its board of directors and the delayed hiring of an executive director — the long-anticipated project remains little more than an unspecified amount of money raised, artists’ renderings and the dreams of those who want to properly honor Nashville icons such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith.
It’s been a long 120-plus months. Not surprisingly, skeptics abound. City boosters talk less and less about the project. A detailed model in the office of Tuck-Hinton Architects, the building’s co-designer with Harold Thompson Architects, seems more like a curio than a prototype of a major civic structure.
But out of almost nowhere, the woman now leading the project says an important update should be made by late July.
“We’ve got a number of milestones we’re going to announce soon,” said Paula Roberts, the museum’s executive director. “There are some substantial elements of the announcement contingent upon a couple of things happening after July 4.”
Both museum and city officials have long delivered this mantra. The most recent start date for the facility was 2010 (and was announced the year before).
Roberts is determined. She met with Mayor Karl Dean the day The City Paper interviewed her for this story. Roberts said the mayor is committed to the city providing the full balance of $10 million in funding for the $33 million project. To date, Metro has provided $1.8 million of its commitment. A private-sector fundraising campaign continues — in late 2008, AT&T announced a $120,000 contribution — though Roberts declined to say how much money has been raised.
“The meeting was an update as to where we are and that we’re preparing for the announcement that is forthcoming,” said Roberts, who began her tenure with the museum in early 2009. “We want to have all key constituents aware of where we are.”
When asked whether the project has been modified to decrease the cost, Roberts declined comment. She also did not identify similar specialty museums she and board members are possibly collaborating with on a joint venture or, at the minimum, viewing as templates.
Roberts, former director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center at Tennessee State University, said the museum would open in 2013.
If and when it is completed, the museum is expected to have 55,000 square feet of usable interior space. Its collection would pay homage to the city’s storied North Nashville, heavily endowed with African-American culture, with a strong emphasis on music. In its glory days from the 1950s through the ’70s, Jefferson Street offered numerous live music venues that hosted high-profile acts such as Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and B.B King. The site is also near land proposed for the future home of the Tennessee State Museum, long housed in the James K. Polk State Office Building.
From conceptualization to completion, timetables for museums are often lengthy, according to Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Moore said a 10-year minimum timeframe is common.
“Most of these projects don’t start with significant collections,” Moore said. “It’s an idea and concept. You have an individual or small group of individuals who have a vision. Many start like that. They know people who can secure dollars, but it’s a long process to secure those dollars.”
Even those museums with major government support require patience, Moore said. For example, The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established as a Smithsonian Institution museum by an act of Congress in 2003. The facility, ground for which has yet to be broken, is expected to welcome the public in 2015.
“With the National Museum on the Mall, there have been stops and starts and stops and starts,” Moore said.
Moore once worked at the Ohio-based National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, a facility that was at least 12 years in the making.
The American Association of Museums lists 53 African-American-oriented museums and cultural centers as members. But there are more than 100 African-American-themed museums nationally, Moore said, adding that Nashville is primed to support such a facility.
“Yes, there is a market,” she said. “It’s American history.”
Tim Sampson, communications director of the Memphis-based Soulsville Foundation (the parent of, among others, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music), agreed.
“We get a lot of European tourists who do the Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale [Miss.] and Indianola [Miss.] trip,” he said. “Europeans are fascinated by the Southern culture. The more there is to do, the more reason for them to visit.
“Every city has a right and almost an obligation to honor its African-American history,” Sampson added.
Adding to the museum’s challenge, some locals contend, is its status as a “specialty museum.” Specialty museums, also called niche museums, are broadly defined and often difficult to classify, but the term typically includes institutions that are not conventional museums devoted to comprehensive art, history and science collections. Nashville has a handful of specialty museums. The best known is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, while the most distinctive almost surely is the Lane Motor Museum, located on Murfreesboro Road and home to one of the world’s largest collections of vintage cars — with an emphasis on the quirky and obscure.
Jeff Lane, that museum’s founder and president, said Nashville could support niche museums because it’s a tourist destination. And he said patience is needed.
“My experience is that 10 years [run-up to groundbreaking] is not unusual,” he said.
When asked if there is a tipping point when construction has permanently stalled and museum officials terminate their efforts, Moore countered with a differing view. She said the extended time periods often required for specialty museums can actually be beneficial, as they allow for changes in both start-up personnel and board members. Such shifts in people and approaches, themes and designs provide a rejuvenating effect.
“The key thing is that with these projects is that the configuration of people at the beginning [of the process] changes [over time],” she said. “That’s not unusual. The whole concept of ‘giving up’ is [difficult to fathom]. You have new people coming in with fresh ideas and energy. New people take up the mantle.”
Roberts has taken that mantle and remains steadfast in securing full funding and seeing construction begin.
“In general, we’re looking at ways we can align ourselves with [entities that can provide methods of how] a museum can be launched,” she said.
Even after the upcoming announcement, Roberts knows skeptics will remain. She is unfazed.
“The [information] we will announce in a few of weeks will show that progress is being made,” she said. “We’ve been able to [convince] a lot of people who thought it wasn’t going to happen.”