African Art Museum still looking for new home

Lease at Historic Oakland expires May 31

director, trustees say they’re optimistic

April 23, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special To The Baltimore Sun

At the end of May, a mere six weeks from now, the African Art Museum of Maryland will have a new home somewhere, preferably still in Columbia.

The board of the museum, a not-for-profit institution that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, gave notice last August of its plans to move out of Historic Oakland, where it has operated since 1989.

Though the museum's lease expires May 31, it has not secured new quarters.

"We have been actively looking at new spaces for over a year and have gotten some positive leads," said Doris Ligon, the museum's executive director. "We need more display room and a location that is ADA-compliant" to provide access for patrons with physical disabilities. The current galleries can be reached only by stairs.

Ligon said 3,000 square feet is the minimum space needed for operation of the museum, which has two private collections of African art waiting in Baltimore to go on exhibit. But museum officials are willing to accept far less space on a temporary basis.

"We would take a closet [in the interim] if we had to, so that we can remain open and still qualify for grants while we continue our search," she said.

The museum has about 3,000 artifacts on display in about 1,200 square feet of space in two rooms on the second floor of Historic Oakland, the 19th-century manor home off Vantage Point Road in Town Center.

Housed in the galleries are a wall-size mural, sculptures, wood carvings, musical instruments, masks, jewelry, baskets and textiles, all of which were donated.

One of the most memorable gifts came from a master weaver who left his home in Senegal for the first time to create a tapestry in the museum on his own loom that had been shipped ahead, Ligon said. The brightly colored butterfly design took two weeks from start to finish, she recalled, and it was thrilling to watch it take shape in front of museum staff and visitors.

Despite the fast-approaching deadline to leave the current space, Ligon said she and the museum's board of trustees remain optimistic about the situation.

"There is no gloom and doom," she said. "We are not wringing our hands in despair, though we know this is serious. But difficult and impossible are not the same thing."

Lease negotiations between the museum and the Town Center Village Association, which operates the facility on behalf of the Columbia Association, were handled by attorney Joel Abramson.

"We were concerned when they first notified us that they would not be renewing their lease," Abramson said. "They have been good tenants, and we were always happy to have them providing a valuable service there."

The association agreed to the museum board's request for an additional six-month extension beyond the Nov. 30, 2009, expiration date of its most recent five-year lease agreement. The museum did not request any further extensions, the attorney said.

After the last day was agreed upon, the Town Center Village Association began searching for a new tenant and is "already in the process of leasing the space," said Patricia Laidig, village manager.

Ligon co-founded the museum in 1980 with her husband, Claude, who died in 2005. They initially dubbed it Gallery Ligon and ran it from their Columbia home.

"I am amazed at what we've been able to accomplish, starting out with no money, no resources and no art," she said. "My husband was a visionary, and we were very fortunate."

The museum soon relocated to underused space at Phelps Luck Elementary School before moving to the former Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City, she said. Oakland is the museum's third official home and is run by Ligon, who is full time and draws no salary, one part-time paid staff person, and a corps of 20 volunteers.

"We didn't invent African art and we didn't invent museology," she said. "But we don't start things to not continue them. It's a goal that we set and we're not going to stop operating."

Board member Vivian Dixon concurred.

"I believe in divine intervention, and I believe the space is out there," Dixon said. "It only takes one person to say ‘yes' to make this happen."

Mary Schiller, manager of the county public school system's Partnerships Office, called the museum a "wonderful resource" and expressed her hope that it will be able to relocate soon.

"The museum has long been involved in the community, giving students hands-on knowledge of African culture and bringing the curriculum to life," she said, though a formal HCPSS partnership agreement was just signed in December.

"The world has become a global community and the museum has broadened our students' awareness of the world they will one day inherit," Schiller said, especially by bringing artifacts into the classroom.

"Our thing is education," Ligon said, noting that aside from visiting schools, museum representatives also travel to senior centers and businesses to give presentations.

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