Lewis Museum struggles with attendance, fundraising

State kicks in to cover shortfall

  • The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which opened in Baltimore with great fanfare in 2005, has fallen short of attendance and fundraising goals -- forcing the state to shore up its finances.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History… (Sun photo by Amy Davis )
September 21, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which opened in Baltimore with great fanfare in 2005, has fallen short of attendance and fundraising goals — forcing the state to shore up its finances.

During the past five years, annual attendance has averaged 38,000, well short of the 150,000 projected when the Lewis Museum opened, according to data supplied by the museum. Meanwhile, museum officials acknowledge, it has failed to met a state requirement that it generate $2 million, half of its annual budget, in privately raised revenue.

That financial shortfall is being made up by Maryland taxpayers.

For the past two years, the state — which already contributes $2 million annually to the museum — has kicked in extra funds to make up the budget gaps: $430,000 this year and $450,000 last year.

Officials are starting to express concern about the museum's problems.

"This is an obvious problem that continues to get worse," said state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who is vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We've got to find someone, somewhere, some private agency, some group, that can help. State and local government can't do it alone."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she's "had some conversations" about whether the city could help with the finances of the Lewis, the largest African-American museum on the East Coast and the second-largest in the nation. But she said it would be premature to discuss city involvement.

"Any time I hear about an asset we have in the city having hard times, I'm concerned," Rawlings-Blake said of the museum named after the late Baltimore-born businessman, the first African-American to own a billion-dollar business. "The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is a beautiful piece of architecture and a tribute to the man and what he represents."

Officials at the Lewis say the nation's financial woes adversely affected the museum along with more than 70 percent of U.S. arts groups. They also acknowledge that internal factors have contributed — for example, the museum went for two years without department heads for marketing and development. On Friday, the museum announced the hiring of a marketing director and associate director of development, adding to a staff of about 25 full- and part-time workers.

"The recession had a strong impact on us, since we had just opened to the public in 2005," A. Skipp Sanders, the Lewis' executive director, wrote in an emailed response to questions from The Baltimore Sun. "Our museum's challenges with attendance and fundraising through this economic downturn are no different from what this industry as a whole has been confronting and experiencing."

The Lewis is far from the only cultural group in Maryland to suffer from the economic slowdown.

In the past five years, the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and the Contemporary Museum have gone out of business; the Contemporary's board recently announced plans for a scaled-back operation. The Baltimore Museum of Art laid off 14 employees in April, while the Walters Art Museum let go of seven staffers in 2009.

The state has invested heavily in the Lewis since serious planning began during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Upon opening, the Lewis was classified as a quasi-state agency and therefore has a fallback option available to just a handful of Maryland's cultural groups. But the extent to which the Lewis has required extra funding, with few signs that the museum's problems are abating, is what troubles elected officials.

State officials are concerned that the Lewis' problems could get worse. In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will open in Washington, D.C., with high-profile acquisitions, a $15 million budget and donations from the likes of Oprah Winfrey.

The competition, officials for the state Department of Legislative Services wrote in an analysis of the state's 2013-2014 budget, may cause "further difficulties in fundraising" for the Lewis.

The state is holding back $100,000 of this year's allocation until the Maryland African American Museum Corp., which runs the Lewis, reports back to budget committees on how it plans to implement a consultant's recommendations for improvements. The report is due Dec. 1.

Sanders says that no national museum can explore Maryland history as comprehensively as a local institution. "There is room for both the national museum and regional museums," Sanders wrote.

The Lewis has recently begun programs designed to attract more visitors, including an African-American book festival for children and social events on the third Thursday of each month. Sanders is excited that, beginning Nov. 2, the Lewis will exhibit the Kinsey Collection, one of the largest private groupings of artifacts that chronicle African-American history from the 1600s to the present.

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