BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Amid rumors and some facts about the future of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum, concerned citizens attended the monthly St. Petersburg College (SPC) Board of Trustees meeting, held at their Midtown Campus Tuesday, to get their three minutes at the podium.
After waiting for almost two hours, around 15 people addressed the board about their concerns over the possible change in control of the museum. Current board members at the museum learned of SPC’s proposal two weeks ago at a housing authority meeting where they were blindsided by the news.
“We were ecstatic to learn of SPC’s interest in the museum,” said Terri-Lipsey-Scott, current chair of the Woodson Museum, “but it was unnerving for those of us present because it was the first time learning of your interest in the museum.”
She went on to say that Deveron Gibbons, the chairman of SPC’s Board of Trustees, was “extremely insulting and offensive” in his presentation at the housing authority’s meeting. “I would like to say to you and remind you of the comments of the commissioner of the housing authority,” said Lipsey-Scott. “The interstate divided our community, the Dome divided our community and he, nor any of us, want to be a part of anything that will further divide our community.”
The St. Petersburg Housing Authority owns the building and the land that the Woodson Museum is housed in, but the current administration is a non-profit, tax-exempt entity that is operating under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All artifacts and the actually name cannot be used by anyone but the current board; therefore, SPC would have to come up with a new name for their African-American museum.
The Tampa Bay Times is reporting that Darrell Irions, St. Petersburg Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, said the current museum administration has never met the museum’s original objective of being a fully functional African-American museum, and that feedback from the community has deemed it as a social club.
Not according to citizen after citizen who waited for their turn at the microphone. School Board member Rene Flowers said she firmly stands behind the current board, but welcomes a partnership with the college.
“I would venture to say that if there is a desire to become a part of our community in another way, join us. Join the board that currently serves. We are doing great things. We’ll gladly take your presents, you can become a friend of the museum and we will certainly take your money if you want to help us expand and move beyond where we are,” Flowers said.
Attorney Jacqueline Hubbard reminded the board that the Woodson Museum is the only African-American art museum in the Tampa Bay area, and she also suggested a partnership instead of a takeover.
“The college can help the museum grow into a fine institution if we can get together and have a collaborative effort,” she said.
Carla Bristol, Gallerie909 owner, listed many of the activities that have occurred at the museum just this year including world renowned artist Williams Kwanena-Poh’s exhibit along with artists Sonya Evans, Charles Axt and Sharon Norwood to name a few. She also mentioned the collaborative efforts between the museum and the Al Downing Jazz Association and how it is now a stop on the St. Pete Second Saturday ArtWalk where a trolley takes art lovers on a tour of over 30 warehouses, galleries and studios.
Susan Golden had a different perspective on why the current museum is so desperately needed. “Everyone has spoken about the importance of the museum to the black community. I want to suggest the Woodson Museum is even more important to the white community. They are addressing the issues that much of our society is falling short on.”
But not everyone felt that the SPC proposal was a bad idea. Local businessman Eric Atwater said: “If you all are going to help the people, I’m with you.”
With such a hostile and contentious environment in the room, Gibbons was quick to assert that the St. Petersburg Housing Authority asked the college to come up with a proposal and that a takeover was not intended.
In a letter drafted by Lipsey-Scott to the housing authority, she asked for a postponement in the vote and refuted Irions’ words by listing all the programs and exhibits that have taken place this year. She also contends that the museum does an excellent job with the funding that it receives.
“The Woodson’s Board of Directors and Friends have been excellent stewards of the museum’s extremely limited resources. However, we have operated successfully within our means. The Woodson has not and does not benefit from the exorbitant financial donations made available to other local museums. For instance, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times, the now defunct Florida International Museum benefited when the City of St. Petersburg purchased the museum’s building for $3.9 million and forgave some debt, as did two corporate sponsors. Further, FIM received $7 million in debt forgivingness from a local philanthropist.
“In addition, the over 90-year-old St. Petersburg Museum of History, which was reportedly in arrears with payments to the city in 2012 in the amount of $37,427, in spite of having a lease agreement for $1 per year on the city’s pristine downtown waterfront. Most recently, the City of St. Petersburg awarded $2.5 million to the Dali Museum. These are just a few examples of the disparity of fiscal resources between the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum and other local museums,” she wrote.
The housing authority said they would entertain the notion of postponing the vote on whether they will sever ties with the current administration set for today.