THE THOMPSON POST
N E W S & P E R S P E C T I V E
BLACK HISTORY MATTERS: DUSABLE MUSEUM UNDER SIEGE?
By NATHAN THOMPSON
POSTED AUGUST 4, 2015 1:02PM CST / BRONZEVILLE PRESS NEWS SERVICE®
In the University of Chicago’s ongoing efforts to devour the Southside of Chicago, now comes word that the DuSable Museum for African American History, established by our beloved Dr. Margaret Burroughs, may be in the university’s crosshairs. The University of Chicago of course denies the claim but it would certainly be in keeping with the real estate (and park district land) they have already seized control of. Over the years, the university has consumed much of its surrounding areas, black inhabited areas, Woodlawn in particular. In that context, the University of Chicago has effectively positioned itself (directors notwithstanding) as a modern day Roman Empire with DuSable Museum, situated in a landmarked Daniel Burnham building sitting on park district land, in its purview as Library of Alexandria, with treasures not seen since the last days of Paul Robeson. In this context it is believed that Rome has deployed a Moor as its emissary, offering good will.
The black face on this controversial hustle, if in fact there is a hustle, appears to be one Theaster Gates, a U of C professor in the department of visual arts. Gates grew up on the black West Side but attended a preferred school on the white north side. Today the 42-year old holds degrees in urban planning, city design, and religion. He is best known locally for his renowned artistic renovation of dilapidated residential properties in the 6900 block of Dorchester Avenue known as the Dorchester Projects, and for his Arts Incubator space at 55th & Prairie. According to the Guardian Newspaper of London, Gates is the “darling of the international art world.” For all his celebrated good in the hood, however, nearly all of Gates’ employees, caretakers, and construction contractors hired for his art project installations are white, and all of the contractors he employs to build his installations have been white. Gates has been a member of the DuSable Museum board of Trustees for less than a year but according to a plan he submitted to the museum’s board of trustees, under the umbrella of his own ‘DuSable Futures Committee,’ co-chaired with fellow U of C professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart of the cinema and media department. According to the proposal, Gates wants to “re-purpose” and “inspire a major conceptual shift” of DuSable Museum. All of that, it is assumed, would be realized through the vast resources of his benefactors, the University of Chicago and its interests. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Lets back up to Gates’ proposed “re-purpose” and “major conceptual shift.”
“Re-purpose:” Does that mean ‘some other purpose,’ other than that for which it was established? “Conceptual shift:” Does that mean ‘shifting away from the concept of a museum’ for the study of African American history, it’s founding purpose?
When Dr. Burroughs and her colleagues founded the museum, lack of financing for a proper facility caused the visionary team to operate the “museum” out of the basement of “Margaret’s house” at 3806 S. Michigan Avenue in Bronzeville. It was officially chartered in February 1961 as the “Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art” and in 1968 became DuSable Museum of African American History. In 1971 the museum relocated to its present donated location in Washington Park. The 1915 building was designed by Daniel Burnham as the South Park Administration Building and later became a police station. The Harold Washington Wing was added in 1993. The current lease that the park district holds on the museum was signed the year before opening in the park. Arguably, African Americans, the very people the museum stands for and about, have shown little interest in the institution for the past several years as reflected in the museum’s declining attendance and diminishing membership roll, which certainly speaks to programming issues and the financing there of. Where the blame for this disconnect should be placed, however, is debatable.
Today, the DuSable Museum of African American History is one of 10 ‘member-institutions’ of the ‘Museums in the Park Coalition’ funded (and allegedly promoted) by the Chicago Park District. The other 9 members are: the Museum of Science and Industry, the Mexican Fine Arts Center and Museum, the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Chicago Historical Society, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium. Like the DuSable Museum, each of those institutions had a founding purpose, conceptualized around the idea that each of their respective themes stood to serve the public interest with their respective offerings. And if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, all 10 of these institutions will continue to exist and operate in their intended purpose for generations to come. I can’t image the Aquarium, the Planetarium, DuSable Museum, or any other established, purposeful institution being ‘re-purposed’ into a ‘conceptual shift’ because the University of Chicago has a real estate addiction and one talented professor has an ego with cabal support. He’s not the first, nor the last. On the other hand, this kind of thing happens when one does not take stock, ownership and control of one’s own. As usual, as black concerns we find ourselves in a reactionary position.
Leading the reactionary opposition to the perceived takeover is the newly formed ‘Concerned Committee for the Support of Independent Black Cultural Institutions.’ This group, which includes Historian Lerone Bennett Jr., Black Ensemble Theater Founder Jackie Taylor, CICS Founder Dr. Conrad Worrill, and scores of respected names, recently sent the university board a letter in which the group states: “We vehemently disagree with this shift in direction from Dr. Margaret Burroughs’ mission and vision for DuSable Museum. . . . This brazen attempt to deliver the DuSable Museum into University of Chicago management must be immediately halted.” This group recently held a forum at the Center for Inner City Studies that attracted a full house with many recognizable names and faces. What was not reported, however, is the “gerrymandering” that was happening around certain speakers. Not everyone scheduled to speak was given the opportunity to do so. University interests were definitely in the house with containment games in play.
The University of Chicago, known euphemistically in some circles as the “House of Rockefeller,” has a 55-member Board of Trustees that includes university president Robert J. Zimmer, and at least 15 entities representing big banking and finance, including Lazard, Guggenheim, Credit Suisse Group AG, and the Carlyle Group. Some of these interests were players in the events that led to the Wall Street crash of 2008. All but nine of the 55 appear to hold degrees from the university. Andrew M. Alper is Chairman of the U of C Board of Trustees. He runs Alper Investments and sits on the board of directors of Lazard. Of the entire 55-member board, only three members are African American: John Rogers Jr. (Ariel Investments LLC) who serves as a board officer, Myrtle S. Potter (& Company LLC), and Elizabeth M. Thompson (non-profit organizational specialist)(no relation).
The untimely exit of museum trustee Robert Blackwell Sr., who was hired last November as an interim replacement for Dr. Carol Adams (“retired”) as President and CEO of DuSable Museum, is another questionable act. Blackwell, activist minded principal at Blackwell Consulting Services, agreed to stay on until a permanent replacement is hired, which to date hasn’t happened. But that didn’t stop ‘the board(s)’ from firing Blackwell back in May/June, barely 6 months on the job.
“I was fired [by the museum board] because I went public with my objections to what they were trying to do. But I don’t think the University of Chicago is the villain,” says Mr. Blackwell. Co-board member Peggy Montes, head of the Bronzeville Childrens’ Museum, concurs with Blackwell. Montes states in no uncertain terms, “I do not believe the university wants to takeover DuSable Museum. I don’t think so.” Blackwell, however, admits that he is mostly concerned that Gates is conflicted between his position as a museum board member, and his position as a university professor funded by university interests, and that Gates appears to be positioning himself to run the museum.
While Mr. Blackwell, Ms. Montes, and other museum board members do not believe the university is trying to take over the museum, there is, however, some questionable business in play.
It should be noted here that the executive search firm retained by the museum board to find a permanent museum chief may be closely connected to members of the university’s board. Both boards have direct ties to Wall Street interests.
The Chairman of DuSable Museum’s 27-member Board of Trustees is Clarence K. Bourne (African-American), Managing Director of Loop Capital Markets and a registered lobbyist. This board has two other members representing the banking and finance interests of Urban Partnership Bank, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Theaster Gates is one of two U of C professors on the board. The other is Dr. Kenneth Warren (African American), Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues. He is also a member of the editorial boards of the Cambridge Series of American Literature, and American Literary History. As of July, the newest Trustees are the husband and wife team of William S. Cohen and Janet Langhart-Cohen. He is the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and former U.S. Senator from Maine. She, once known as the “First Lady of the Pentagon,” is a well established tv journalist, author, playwright, and head of Langhart Communications.
Meanwhile, two entities stand waiting in the wings to participate in any new ‘re-purposing’ and ‘conceptual shifts’ put forth by the U of C and its minions. One of them is the ‘Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture,’ an arm of the University of Chicago, established in 1994 by its current director, researcher Michael Dawson. The CSRPC has been somewhat of a clearing house for ‘calls for papers,’ ‘calls for family archives,’ and ‘calls’ for other things associated with the lives and culture of black Americans (intel). Dawson’s research in this direction has been described as the “richest data on this issue that exists on the racial divide in the United States.” Gates is one of “the Center’s” directors. The second entity is the ‘Arts and Public Life Initiative,’ another arm of the U of C, this one run by Theaster Gates himself. The question remains, however, is Mr. Gates a shrewd and willing participant playing the system, or a naïve victim of manipulation? Either way, black Americans and supporters of Dr. Burroughs’ legacy cannot allow university influence to control this important black institution, no matter how noble any plan appears to be.
Speaking of nobility, another key player in this mix is the Miami based Knight Foundation, a journalism support organization, since 2005 led by Alberto Ibargüen, former publisher of the Miami Herald newspaper. Since 2005 this foundation has awarded nearly a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in journalism and media innovation grants. The Knight Foundation began in 1940 as the ‘Knight Memorial Education Fund,’ supported largely by the Akron Beacon Journal and Miami Herald newspapers. It became the Knight Foundation in 1950 and later left Ohio and reincorporated as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Florida in 1993. The Inter American Press Association in Miami was the foundation’s first journalism grant recipient. In their entire history, that of Knight and its affiliates, up until 2011 there are no mentions of any interest in or associations with anything to do with black people or black institutions. Aside from the foundation’s regular grant programs, up until 2011 the Knight Foundation held three regular contests: The Knight News Challenge, The Knight Arts Challenge, and the Knight Community Information Challenge. So dismal has black success been with receiving grants or winning any of this organization’s contests that finally in 2011, rather than remove biased elements from the judging process, the foundation simply created a fourth contest, the Black Male Engagement Challenge (BME, “be me”). For this op, Knight partnered with the Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Open Society Foundations was founded in 1979 by global financier George Soros. This foundation’s CBMA was established in 2008 as “a multi-issue, cross-fund strategy to address Black men and boys’ exclusion from economic, social, educational, and political life in the U.S.” The BME contest launched in August 2011 in Detroit and Philadelphia. According to a Knight press release, “The initiative offers support and positive reinforcement to black men who are active in their communities, as well as a social network for these men to discuss ideas and experiences.” On the strength of proclamations like that, thousands of brothers in Detroit and Philly opened up their souls and poured out their proverbial guts in front of thousands of video cameras. The new year rolled in with the announcement of the winners. Twenty men, 10 in Detroit, 10 in Philly, split $443,000 in “Leadership Award Grant” money [individual grants up to $40,000] to be used for their respective community projects. According to a press release, the winners “exemplify Knight Foundation’s vision for an informed and engaged Detroit: leaders who make it easier for others to lead.” Four years later Detroit is becoming Gotham City.
In April of last year, the Knight Foundation invested $3.5M in the University of Chicago-Rebuild Foundation partnership. The Rebuild Foundation is yet another Theaster Gates enterprise. According to a Knight Foundation press release, the money “will create a national platform for propagating a groundbreaking model that uses imagination and culture-driven community engagement to transform and revitalize disinvested communities…”
It amazes me that in the 75-history of the Knight Foundation, Theaster Gates is apparently the only black guy they could find worthy of receiving a grant to revitalize a disinvested community on Chicago’s Southside. He’s even got the old Southmoor Bank building at 68th & Stony Island which is being converted into living spaces for artists.
The immediate future of DuSable Museum is uncertain. Theaster Gates, however, reportedly has agreed to meet privately with the CCSIBCI this Thursday. In the meantime, the group plans to call for the removal of Clarence Bourne as DuSable Board Chairman, and a gradual turnover of Board Trustees. Whatever happens, membership must increase 100% and lots of dollars need to be raised, ideally from the black community at large. Part of the problem, according to one trustee, is that “nobody comes to DuSable for DuSable. They come for themselves, not for the mission and vision of DuSable. The museum’s board needs people who will bring in money and resources. The board has been too dependent on park district money. Park district money should not be the majority of the budget.”
The way I see it, Chicago wards average 28,000 registered voters [15th has the least, 34th has the most]. 14 of these wards are predominantly black [3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, 21, 27, 28, 29, 34, and 38] with 499,438 registered voters. If each of these registered voters contributes just $10.00 a head, that would produce more than $4.9M. That’s the kind of leverage ‘we the people’ need to fight any takeover attempts, real or imagined. It is also troubling that there are no board members that hail from the established ‘black arts community’ and the ‘established black literary community. Finally, in this day and age there should be a continuous schedule of marquee names (you know who they are) associated with all aspects of the histories of black life, bloodlines and world ancestry, speaking at DuSable Museum every week for generations to come. We do not come from slavery and oppression. We allowed other people to ‘re-purpose’ and ‘conceptually shift’ us into those states. This is your wakeup call, black Americans. We cannot allow any ‘take over’ of this institution.
For 54 years, the DuSable Museum of African American History has stood as a beacon of orientation for black Americans everywhere. It is now time for black Americans everywhere to stand for the museum. The future of black history may well depend on it.
©2015 Nathan Thompson
NATHAN THOMPSON is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and the Author of ‘Kings: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers.’ He can be reached at ‘email@example.com.’/ Facebook.com/Nathan.Thompson.94849
DuSable Museum of African American History
DuSable Museum Board of Trustees
University of Chicago Board of Trustees
Museums in the Park / Chicago Park District
Detroit / Philadelphia Winners of the 2011/12 BME Video page
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