Wallace Yvonne Tollette is director of the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center.
John Johnston

Month to Month

The Black American West Museum and Heritage Center won't be open during Black History Month. The venerable institution has been forced to close its doors for all of February, and possibly longer, because it doesn't have enough money to continue operating.

"That's very, very unfortunate," says museum boardmember Ottawa Harris. "It's one of the worst things we could do, but that's the way the timing hit."

The museum, which owns thousands of artifacts, memorabilia, photographs, letters and other documentation of the role of black people in the West, needs only $200,000 a year to cover its administrative costs and to fund the preservation of its collection, and it usually raises $150,000 to $175,000 a year through admission fees, grants and donations. But these revenues simply haven't been enough to match expenses -- such as property tax, insurance, salaries, utilities and supplies, and this year, the museum will face an $18,000 budget deficit. "Grants generally don't fund administrative costs," says Daphne Rice-Allen, the museum's volunteer and membership coordinator.

While the amount appears small, raising money is always a challenge for the museum, and the board's treasurer recently warned that the deficit could eventually reach $100,000 if something isn't done soon. "We have talked about this for a long time," says museum director Wallace Yvonne Tollette. "We just kept trying to raise the money, get grants. But if the revenues don't come in, we'll be that much more in the hole. And it'll start adding up."

So when the board of directors decided a few weeks ago to close the museum temporarily, it came as no surprise. The questions now, which the board will ponder during the closure, are when and how to reopen. So far, there are no clear answers.

Board president Irving Watts says it's possible the museum could stay closed until June so that the board can work out a long-term strategy. "My feeling is, even if we fix the [deficit], we still should close for more than a month, until we get our ducks in a row," he says.

Yvonne Tollette has begun canvassing the community and hopes to convince one hundred area churches to make $100 monthly contributions for a total of $120,000. "If we knew that was coming, we'd be rich," she says.

Finding a way out of the budget crunch won't be easy. For one thing, Black American West already is well known and well regarded. "We don't really lack for press," says Rice-Allen, pointing out that the museum is a fixture in city tourism literature and airline magazines. Paul Stewart, who founded the museum in 1971 and has written books about the role of black cowboys in settling the West, has even appeared on the Today Show and the CBS Morning News over the years. So raising the museum's profile even higher may not be possible. (While Stewart is still active with the museum and occasionally leads tours of the place, he isn't involved in its day-to-day operations.)

Nevertheless, the museum, at 3091 California Street, only gets about 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year. (By comparison, the Denver Art Museum welcomed 414,000 visitors in the year 2000.)

The museum's woes are not uncommon on the black-arts scene in Denver. For instance, the Eulipions theater group, which purchased a giant performing space near downtown a few years back, ran into a number of operating problems and accrued so much debt that it nearly fell apart. And four years ago, the Denver Black Arts Festival, which was drawing hundreds of thousands of people every summer, was so strapped for cash that it nearly shut down. The community was able to rescue the festival, however, which will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary this July.

"Boards need to have deep pockets -- or friends with deep pockets," Rice-Allen says.

An African-American research library proposed by Mayor Wellington Webb in the fall of 1999 appears to have a little of both. The center's collection, which may end up as part of a Denver Public Library branch in Five Points, will highlight the history and culture of African-Americans in the West. Charleszine Nelson, who is heading up the project, hopes it will become a destination for serious researchers, a regional version of the New York Public Library's famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The library's budget for the years 2000 and 2001 totals $506,712 for three paid staff positions, consulting services, materials, stationery and supplies. The staff has already begun gathering scrapbooks, letters, political papers, genealogical records and other material from prominent Colorado African-Americans, including Ada Evans, the first black person elected to the state legislature, longtime Denver politicians King Trimble and Elvin Caldwell, and Isaac Moore, a former member of the CU Denver Board of Regents. Local black luminaries like Caldwell -- who served on Denver City Council for 25 years -- and jazz musician Charlotte Cowens are giving videotaped interviews about their lives and careers. The library is also trying to collect information about African-Americans across the western United States.

"We have to take materials on availability," Nelson says. The goal is to obtain 100 collections by 2002 and to be in a permanent facility by 2003. (For now, the collection is being stored at the Central Library.) The city is working with developers to find a suitable location in Five Points, possibly along the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, Welton Street.

Given the financial status of the Black American West museum -- not to mention the similarities between the aims of both organizations -- Yvonne Tollette thinks a merger could be mutually beneficial. "We've proposed they be the research arm and we be the visual arm. I think it could work well," she says, adding that the groups have had a few preliminary meetings. Nelson, however, says no plans are in the offing at this point.

The museum will install a new exhibit on baseball's Negro Leagues this month, and while Yvonne Tollette is optimistic that visitors will be able to enjoy it in March, she's not entirely sure when the museum will reopen.

"I can't answer that," she says. "I don't know."


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