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NYC's African Art Center Is Forced To Scale Back Grand Design Plans After Failing To Reach $135 Million Funding Goal.
NYC's African Art Center Is Forced To Scale Back Grand Design Plans After Failing To Reach $135 Million Funding Goal.

Visual Culture: NYC's African Art Center Forced To Scale Back Grand Design

NYC's African Art Center Is Forced To Scale Back Grand Design Plans After Failing To Reach $135 Million Funding Goal.

NYC's African Art Center fka the Museum for African Art has been forced to scale back blockbuster design plans after failing to secure the necessary trustees or reach a $135 million funding goal. The news deals a sizable blow to the project, which was slated to be a massive gem amongst the other major institutions on Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile. While some plans have been revised, others have been left to the cutting room floor. Five years late on the proposed 2009 launch of the museum, the decision was made to ditch the most costly flourishes and design details and trim the budget down to $90 million. The demise of the project's most ambitious goals was explained by Patricia Cohen in a recent piece for the New York Times:

During the Museum for African Art’s 17-year quest to evolve from a tiny SoHo outpost to a major presence on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, it was forced to close its public galleries, move to a temporary home in Queens and, perhaps most significantly, change its identity.

Last summer, the trustees rechristened the art museum the Africa Center, in the hopes that they could attract new donors by expanding the mission to include policy and business; they had to reinvent the museum to save it. As its most recent tax return shows, the museum had to write off nearly $5 million in uncollected pledges in the fiscal year ending June 2013. Contributions, which had topped $7 million the previous year, dropped to less than $1 million.

That metamorphosis signaled a new chapter for a museum that began life in 1984 in a set of townhouses on the Upper East Side, and moved to SoHo in 1993. Four years later, Elsie McCabe Thompson, a Harvard-trained lawyer who had been chief of staff for Mayor David N. Dinkins, took charge. Ms. Thompson set her sights on moving the tiny museum and collection to 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, where it would occupy the bottom floors of a 19-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern.

Ms. Thompson, who later married the city comptroller and 2013 mayoral candidate William C. Thompson Jr., managed to raise an impressive $75 million, the museum said, more than $32 million of it in public funds and tax credits. She also steered the project — originally scheduled to open in 2009 — through several crises, including the exit of a development partner and engineering problems.

After the 2007 financial crash, fund-raising flagged, but Ms. Thompson refused to consider a cheaper design or a phased-in opening, explaining in May 2012, “Africa deserves the best that we could give it.”

Five months later, she announced her resignation, saying that she was looking for other opportunities.

Dennis Scholl, who oversees the Knight Foundation’s national arts programs, said that while he respected Ms. Thompson’s vision, “you have to match your vision to your resources.”

While the museum is not yet facing certain death, it has had to reimagine itself in the absence of funds and donors with sufficiently deep pockets:

Now, instead of imported Etimoe wood, there will be ground and polished concrete; instead of 16,000 square feet of gallery space, there will be 9,600; and instead of $60 million more in donations, officials are looking for $20 million. The revision, however, offers something that the original did not: the possibility that it will actually be built.
The result is a stripped-down interior, designed by Gordon Kipping. Gone are the restaurant, classical theater and floor-wide galleries. Visitors will eventually find an African-themed cafe, an open-ceiling design and a phased-in opening beginning with public spaces on the first two floors.

“We’re doing it more modestly and more raw,” Mr. Kipping said. He explained that he was able to shave $15 million to $20 million by changing the finishes from wood to polished concrete and reducing the size of galleries that required sensitive environmental controls.

“We are being much more prudent,” Mr. Conte said. The new design includes multipurpose spaces that will allow for more varied fund-raisers.

The museum's trustees have also taken a hit, being scaled back to six from 24. The new board has reportedly pledged $9 million toward the completion of the project. They intend to raise the other $11 million by October. While the news is indeed bittersweet for those with emotional and financial investments in this venture, it may bring enough attention to the project to help the African Art Center to meet its short term goals and eventually see the light of day. Read the full article on NYC's African Art Center via The New York Times. Learn more about the project via Stay tuned for more.