This February 2011 story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is my latest about the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. Referenced in the article are some of the many travails that have dogged this organization. You can find out more about the challenges the museum has faced in three earlier stories posted on this blog. For the longest time the only news coming out of the museum was bad news. But as my new piece suggests there are some positive things happening now having to do with new leadership in place that might finally provide the direction needed to move forward with long overdue change and much delayed progress. I will continue following this story and as new developments occur and as I report on them I will share the posts here.
Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its Latest Evolution
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The new Great Plains Black History Museum board is putting its stamp on the long troubled organization by holding the first in a planned series of community forums about its future direction.
On February 11, GPBHM chairman Jim Beatty will lead a 2-4 p.m. forum at the Lakeside (Family Housing Services Advisory) building, 24th and Lake, to, as a flyer describes, “discuss a variety of topics…on your mind.”
Beatty, president of Omaha-based consulting firm NCS International, is aware attempts to move forward necessarily entail addressing the dysfunction of the museum’s recent past. The City of Omaha has declared the museum building at 2213 Lake Street uninhabitable, resulting in the doors being closed. The mandated repairs have not been made due to lack of funds.
When he assumed his roles as board chair and museum executive director last fall he found the coffers virtually empty, with no members and no donors. The museum’s not been awarded a grant in years.
“There isn’t a lot of money there,” he says. “I think something like $29 in the checking account.”
Previous chair and director Jim Calloway tried maintaining the building and collection by paying for utility bills, spot roof-window fixes and storage sites out of his own pocket.
Calloway, the son of founder Bertha Calloway, was criticized for his management of funds and for storing the museum’s historical research materials in a non-climate controlled trailer.
“That by no means meets my criteria or any museum’s criteria for proper storage of documents and artifacts,” says Beatty. “That may have been done in the past out of some level of desperation, another indication the leadership of the museum was not operating with the best intentions of handling its business properly.”
Yet, Beatty praises Calloway’s passion. “I think the public needs to understand Jim was trying to keep his mother’s dream alive,” he says, “and that’s not to be taken lightly.” He also credits Calloway for reaching an agreement with the Nebraska State Historical Society to take temporary custodial care of the materials. The documents and photographs are housed at the NSHS in Lincoln, where cataloging’s been done.
Beatty says the materials will remain there until a suitable home is found. While the GPBHM seeks support to address issues at its Lake Street building and the possible addition of a new site, it seeks to make itself and the collection visible.
“The museum has a very valuable collection the public has not seen that it needs to see or at least needs to understand what does exist,” he says. “We have a challenge to save the building but we have to make certain people understand the building does not dictate the museum. The museum is a compilation of resources, artifacts, documents, and that work needs to go on. Once we have properly inventoried everything, then we can begin to identify opportunities to properly display that.”
He’s thinking outside the box.
“The museum can and will have to function without having that building as its base. We can have exhibits at schools, at corporations, at Crossroads, Westroads, at various events.”
He envisions a revamped, interactive website featuring the collection online.
“So, for a time it may well be a museum without walls, and that’s OK. I am in discussions with an entity to provide a facility. Until we get a space, I think we have to be creative — we have to truly demonstrate the museum is alive and well.”
He acknowledges the GPBHM has not communicated its story well. “It’s unfortunate the community just has not known what the museum is doing. I believe there’s a number of rumors out there that need to be corrected.” One he wants to dispel is that the Lake Street building is owned by the Calloways.
“A lawsuit ultimately decided in favor of the museum gave title to the building to the museum as opposed to the family,” he says.
He vows greater transparency.
“People want to know what the bottom-line is. They want to have an assurance the money is being used wisely, accounted for properly and in a timely fashion, and that the books are open. Folks want to know, and in my opinion they deserve to know.”
A capital campaign will eventually be launched.
“Omaha’s a very philanthropic community. I believe we’ll be able to raise money. I’m very confident in that. How much depends on how the funders view the credibility of the organization. That starts with the board of directors,” he says. “We have to have people that bring resources and credibility.”
Toward that end two stalwart Omaha business-community figures — Frank Hayes and Ken Lyons — recently joined the board.
“We need the involvement of the government too,” he says. “The city, county and state all are potential funders at some level.”
More than anything, he wants the museum lifted out of its dormancy.
“There is a sadness this is happened but at the same time there is a hope something can be done to revive the museum and put it on a proper track. My discussions in the community confirm people want to see a vibrant museum that is relevant, involved, proactive, well managed, respected.”
Beatty, who chaired the Durham Museum board, says, “It’s certainly a challenge but one I feel my previous involvement in the community has prepared me well for. I’m unafraid of it, I welcome it.”
- Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center Back from Hiatus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)