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The future of the Carter G. Woodson Museum
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The battle continues over the museum’s space in the Jordan Park public housing community now known as the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. St. Petersburg Housing Authority met with the current administration of the museum Tues., June 24 to hear exactly what goes on in the historic building.
After the Tampa Bay Times reported 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 it’s no more than a social club, Chairperson Terri Lipsey Scott and the board put together a presentation to show him how wrong he was.
With a video and PowerPoint presentation full of pictures from all the different events, discussions and exhibits, they set out to define what a museum is by studying different museums in the area as well as nationally. What they found is that there is a variety of purposes for a museum, but they all have one thing in common: they are connected to the community.
Woodson’s mission is to engage a broad and diverse audience through the activities at the museum. They are striving to promote an understanding of African-American history to the St. Petersburg community, and all of those fall in line of what a museum is.
Board member Manitia Moultrie admitted that the museum represents a venue that is a bit broader than its name. It has become a center for community dialogue, they have had several youth programs, but more importantly they offer cultural experiences for individuals to come out and share.
“We have given opportunity for dancers to dance, singers to sing, poets to recite and lecturers to lecture. It’s all-encompassing, we offer what you’d expect a museum to offer,” said Moultrie.
Moultrie highlighted a few lines from an article published this week in “Non-Profit Quarterly” that talked about the state of black museums.
“They struggle, they are usually relatively small, they are usually built around people as oppose to objects and the most telling comment to me in the article was if you think about an African-American museum like any other non-profit as a self-sustaining business enterprise, you are missing the point of an African-American museum,” Moultrie said as she told the room that the situation with the museum and the housing authority was actually mentioned in the national magazine.
Somehow the writers of the article knew that the Woodson has had 23 exhibits, 11 youth events, four movie premieres, six book signings and 26 community engagements since 2008, but Irions did not since he had to ask around about the museum. He drew his conclusions that it was a social club from a select group of people.
But after extolling all of the wonderful things the museum offers the community, after showing a letter from their CPA explaining that they have sound financial practices and that there have been no irregularities in their finances, after showing that they are affiliated with all the organizations they need to be affiliated with to be an accredited museum, Irions was not moved.
“From a business perspective, I’m not looking at who can do best…we cannot afford to rent 3,500 square feet of space at 8¢ a square foot, that’s the bottom line. We have our own financial responsibility here,” Irions said and then suggested that they buy the building.
Many of the board members and friends of the museum spoke such as University of South Florida Professor Ray Arsenault. He feels that the museum is on the cusp of making the transition to a museum that is more of a cultural center to a museum that is more like a traditional museum.
“It will never be the Smithsonian, but it will always have a deep community connection, which frankly is its strength,” he said as he spoke of the new curator Sharon Norwood that was just hired.
Lipsey Scott told the housing authority that they certainly have not been lax in their responsibility at the museum and that they have worked feverishly over the years despite little funding.
“It would do our hearts well that when folks approach you to suggest that we are not a fully functioning museum that you will be able to share with them to the contrary because only individuals who have not frequented the museum will be able to suggest such a thing,” she said as she reminded the room that they are the only museum in town that does not have a fee to cross their thresholds.
City Council Member Steve Kornell and State Representative Darryl Rouson were also present to speak on behalf of the current administration.
The St. Petersburg Housing Authority went in front of their finance committee on Wednesday and what was recommended was that they give the current administration a four months extension and raise their rent from $25 a month to $100.
The housing authority’s board eventually decided to give the Woodson museum a six month extension and raise the rent to $100. Within the six-month period, the current administration will be expected to secure funds to buy the space or stay in a landlord tenant relationship and pay current rent rates.
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