Black-Oriented Museums Lack Black Athlete Donors

By Off the BASN Sports Wire Courtesy of the Washington Post
Updated: December 7, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.—*A number of African American-themed museums across the country have launched and are currently operating with few donations from wealthy African American celebrities or athletes.

Washington Post writer Darryl Fears cites the recent opening of the $75 million Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville as an example of just how little financial support has come from wealthy blacks.

Officials there recruited sports commentator Bob Costas and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a boxing aficionado, to raise money from athletes. They were shocked at the lack of support.

“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. 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.”

While Meeks wouldn’t name the celebrities and sports stars who were solicited, a top administrator at the Ali Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, said former basketball stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were contacted, as were golfer Tiger Woods and fight promoter Don King. Actor Will Smith, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his movie portrayal of Ali, was also contacted, the administrator said. None contributed.

After a two-year campaign, only one black contributor, ex-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who is British, gave a substantial amount, $300,000.

“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.”

Fears writes that 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.

She adds that a major reason why black Americans have not stepped up is that most were not asked, in the belief that they did not have money. On the other hand, she said, wealthy black donors were asked too often.

“I can’t imagine how many times Michael Jordan is asked to contribute money,” Gasman said. “He can’t give to everything.”

Estee Portnoy, Jordan’s spokeswoman, would not confirm or deny to the Post that he was called. “We never comment on Michael and Juanita Jordan’s financial contributions,” she said.

Scott Novak, Woods’s spokesman, said the golfer declined the Ali Center’s request because he committed $25 million to building the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., which will open next month. “Tiger Woods has great admiration for Muhammad Ali’s career and legacy,” Novak said.

Barkley, who called Ali one of his greatest heroes during a recent radio talk show, could not be reached. But in a new introduction to his book “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?” Barkley said he frequently gives to charities. He bought four houses in Georgia for Hurricane Katrina victims, according to the book.

Smith’s representatives said the actor was never asked to contribute money. Smith was on the set in San Francisco and did not attend the gala, but submitted a taped tribute to Ali that was shown during festivities.

In the past two years, writes Fears, at least seven major black museums, cultural centers and memorials, amounting to about $1 billion in capital costs alone, have opened or gone into planning, including a Smithsonian national African American museum in Washington.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture opened this year in Baltimore, not long after the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s opening in Cincinnati last year. San Francisco opened its Museum of the African Diaspora in the past week. The National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg and a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington are in the works.

The largest black museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where Rosa Parks’ body was viewed recently, is struggling for money and attendance. The African American Museum in Philadelphia, with its half-million dollar debt, was nearly forced to shut its doors for good this year.