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The Tubman Museum: The Long Journey Home | News

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The Tubman Museum: The Long Journey Home

The grand opening of the new Tubman museum is Saturday. The festivities begin at 11 a.m. with a symbolic march from the old building on Walnut Street to the new Cherry Street location. The march will include drummers, the Macon-Bibb Sheriff's Honor Guard and community dancers. At Noon, there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the terrace outside the new building. You can watch that ceremony right here, on 13WMAZ.com. Then, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. you can tour the new museum and take part in Family Day. It will included guided tours, art activities for kids, music and dance performances. On opening day, admission for non-members is only $5. Museum members get in free.

The History

The grand opening of the new building has taken many years. The first museum opened more than 30 years ago. It was a much humbler spot that began with a passionate priest with a vision.

Richard Keil wanted a place to share positive aspects of African-American history. It was the 1950s and Keil was a young man working with blacks on a farm in the Deep South.


"Here are all these people, loving and kind and clean and moral and smart and beautiful right before me," he remembered.

It took another twenty years before Keil could put his plan in action. He was the priest at St. Peter Claver Church in Macon and leader of the school. He still had his dream of creating an African- American museum, and he had a place in mind.

"I could see Macon was on Interstate 75, also 16. It was in Middle Georgia," he said. "While it has its great and painful divides, it also has a lot of cohesiveness and a lot of beauty into itself."


Keil looked at 18 different buildings before he settled on the Walnut Street spot. He worked to find exhibits and grow the museum. Then, after a few years, stepped down to make way for others.

"The gift I've given to all the directors is that I've never criticized them. Does that mean I agree with everything they've done? No, but who died and left me in charge?"

The man behind the dream has changed, too. He's now in his 80s and he's no longer a priest. But his devotion to the Tubman remains unchanged.


The Struggles

In 2001, city leaders broke ground on a new, bigger spot for the Tubman museum, but they did so without raising the needed funds. Over time, private donations and taxpayer dollars just didn't provide enough money to finish the multi-million dollar building in a timely fashion.

"To raise that kind of money in the Middle Georgia community was pretty ambitious," said former Bibb County Commissioner Elmo Richardson. "It was irresponsible. I don't think it was a good decision to move ahead when they had no idea, you know, based on 'well, yes, somebody will give us the money'."


At that time, the estimated cost was around $15 million, and Tubman officials say they had about half of that in hand.

Macon attorney Virgil Adams, who joined the Tubman board shortly after that decision, says they had enough donor pledges to be confident.

"Irresponsible?" he said. "I completely disagree with that."

But just a few months after ground breaking, the September 11th terrorist attacks slowed the economy down for months. By 2005, Tubman officials say they had raised and spent about $12 million.

Then they had to halt construction when the money ran out.

In November '08, Tubman officials started a second fundraising push.

"Then the economy tanked," said Adams. "So a lot of those financial commitments did not materialize."

Ideally, he says, the project would have taken only 3 to 4 years, but that no one could have forecast the economy's downturn.

"It's easy to say 'it shouldn't have been done,' and in hindsight, I agree," Adams said. "There were problems. But that's in the past. What can you do now to help sustain it?"

With the new museum growing to more than five times the size of its old space, Richardson says the cost of running it will increase, too.


"I think it will be a struggle. I'm not sure where the funds will come from," he said.

So far, museum funding has been a combination of public and private contributions. In 2011, Bibb voters approved $2.5 million in sales tax money for the new museum, and Tubman funding has consistently been included in the county's annual budget.

"I didn't think it was right to use taxpayer money to fund it," said Richardson. "I thought it should've been private contributions."

Adams says ongoing, community support can only be part of the answer.

"I look at the Tubman as being part of economic development, as part of the arts," he said. "And I think government has a responsibility to provide funding."

Former executive director Carey Pickard tells 13WMAZ that nationwide, it was the industry norm to start building projects before having all the money in place.

The Exhibits

When you visit the new Tubman, you'll see all kinds of interesting pieces of art celebrating the African-American experience. The Mr. Imagination exhibits runs around the rotunda. A Mr. Imagination creation uses items people threw away, like sea shells, broom bristles and bottle caps. It's a cheap way to create something unique. But Mr. Imagination, Gregory Warmack, almost paid the ultimate price for his art. In the 1970s someone shot and mugged him in Chicago and left him for dead. Curator Jeffrey Bruce says that led him to his mission, turn trash into treasure.


"While he was laying there injured he had a vision, kind of out of body experience. He was visited by all these artists stretching back through history, through ancient Egypt, and they were giving him these messages, words of encouragement."

Mr. Imagination was a self-taught, visionary artist.

Three years ago, Bruce arranged an exhibition for his work at the old Tubman Museum. However, Mr. Imagination died before that happened. His family honored his promise to Bruce and donated all of his art.

In addition to Mr. Imagination, there are other exhibits that you can visit around the building. See Georgia artists on display, and of course, the Harriet Tubman exhibit. You can stop by the African-American history mural and walk through a wall of music to learn about the city.

Executive Director Andy Ambrose says music is what defines the history of Macon.

"What we have the opportunity to do is tell a really exciting story about Macon in the 50's and 60's, the growth of black entrepreneurialism and businesses, and the emergence of giants like Little Richard and Otis Redding."


Ambrose says people often think they know the history of their city, but there are always new things to learn.

"I think we're going to be able to explore those musical influences that had a big impact on Otis Redding and Little Richard, as well as drew other musicians here, and also how they impacted musicians worldwide," he said.

But, it's what you can't see yet that has Ambrose really excited. The next planned exhibit for the museum digs deeper into Macon's musical heritage.

"This is going to be what I think, in many ways, will be our signature exhibit," he said. "A lot of time, I think people are more familiar with Capricorn and southern rock that came about in the 70's. This will give them an opportunity to learn what came before that and influenced that."

In one corner of what is now empty space, patrons will travel back to concerts of the past. "There's going to be almost a kind of replication, of the Douglass Theatre stage where Otis Redding got his start and where Little Richard, James Brown, and all others performed," Ambrose said. "People will be able to sit there and watch videos, actually performances by Little Richard and Otis Redding, and that music will fill this exhibit as people are looking at other objects."

In another corner, an interactive sound booth with a nod to radio.


"We're going to create a soundproof, kind of listening area. From the exterior it will reference WIBB radio. That was where so many musicians got their exposure to a broader audience. And in that space, 8-10 people can gather and listen and talk about the music they're listening to. They'll even be able to explore that music, watching it as it goes along, pulling up images, etc. It's going to be an incredible, immersive experience. We think it will appeal, not just to the younger who are more IT affluent than us, but also to a wide-range of adults as well."

The Cost

The new Tubman Museum is nearly six times the size of the old, expanding from 8,500 square feet to 49,000. While the new museum dwarfs the other one in size, the budget grew at a less substantial chunk, from $724,000 last fiscal year to $915,000 in the new one. That's a 26% increase.


According to Ambrose, the budget can be broken down into four main categories. Salaries for the 7 full-time employees make up 49% of the budget. Operating costs such as insurance, marketing, and office supplies, ring up at 24%. Programs take another 10% of the budget, and utilities, 17%, or an estimated $150,000.

It takes a lot of electricity to cool 49-thousand square feet. Ambrose says temperature zoning will help keep it cooler in some areas, like exhibit spaces, than others. That's intended to save some green.

Tubman staff expect to make money by doubling the number of visitors to about 30,000 annually.

Admission fees will go up, from $8 to $10.

Ambrose says it's a mistake to think a museum survives on admissions alone. The rotunda offers a new stream of income not available in the old building. People can rent the space for $2,000 for a three hour event. Ambrose estimates that will bring in at least $40,000 next year.

So on the money-making side, it breaks down like this:

30% - admissions, memberships, rentals and store sales.

28% - local tax dollars.

20% - program and fundraisers

11% - grants

11% - donations and contributions

Ambrose calls the budget conservative and says he's confident in the calculations. He believes just opening the doors invites a whole new realm of Tubman potential.

The Tubman needs to keep visitors pouring through the doors, long after the excitement of the grand opening fades. It's not just an all-new building, it's an all-new Tubman. The museum has a new location, a new vision and a new brand.

But it also needs to target new visitors and raise new revenue. And chairman of the board Billy Pitts says that means a new marketing strategy.

"Over the past 19 or 20 years, it has always been a problem getting funding and revenue," said Pitts. "Not only getting in the museum, but making sure we are maintaining and sustaining the museum."

Valerie Bradley with the Macon Convention and Visitors Bureau says they are getting the news out to as many potential visitors as possible.

"We have definitely emphasized the opening through our print and digital communications," she said. "Additionally, our sales team has gone out to different trade shows highlighting the Tubman opening."

Locally, the Tubman has hired Yolanda Latimore's Like Water Publicity to promote its mission and special events

"A lot of the story of the Tubman museum will be told through its exhibit, programs, workshops, signature events, the internet, traditional media, like TV, radio and print, as well as videos that will include documentaries and promos," she said.

They've also hired a national marketing firm, Latimore communications, to expand their reach.


Pitts said "We are talking about going countrywide and particularly the whole southeast United States."

Pitts says its leaders know what it will take to make the new Tubman a success.

"We know exactly how much money we need on a yearly basis to keep the museum open and to maintain the museum. Our partners, our grant community have stepped forward and we have a lot of grants coming in, so it is a very exciting opportunity and people now see that it is done."

The Volunteers

At the heart of the Tubman, you'll find a special group of people on a mission to serve, the volunteers.

One woman has been there since almost the beginning, and plans to be there in the future. Chi Ezekwueche visited the Tubman shortly after she and her husband moved to Macon in the mid-80s. Over the past 30 years the Tubman African American Museum helped Ezekwueche learn more about herself and others, and she made some good friends along the way. She's served many roles at the Tubman, from volunteer to organizer to art donor.


"When we visited home to Nigeria I bought a few art pieces," she said. "Some of them didn't have much significance, but it was better than what we had."

The museum's collections have since grown, much like Ezekwueche's devotion to the Tubman. At the museum she's served on an advisory board, the board of directors and helped raise millions of dollars to build the new museum. The mother of five also gave birth to the Pan African Festival and the music celebration, All That Jazz.

Her goal, reach as many people as possible, regardless of age or race.

"It's a place to come to learn about other people and hopefully more about ourselves and then use that to create harmony."

It's a mission Ezekwueche hopes will carry on at the new museum.

"Because of the good will of the people of Macon, Georgia, that museum has been built," she said.


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