Politics & Government

Current Tubman Museum closing in Macon next week, new one to open in May

The Tubman African American Museum will open in its new Cherry Street Plaza home with a two-day celebration May 16 and 17, the museum’s executive director announced Thursday morning from the building’s still-empty rotunda.

“It’s going to be a very busy time for us over the next month and a half, but the result is going to be a magnificent new museum,” Executive Director Andy Ambrose said.

The opening date for the new $18 million museum is set to coincide with the 19th annual Pan-African Festival. The museum’s home for the past 30 years at 340 Walnut St. will close April 10 with a farewell party, Ambrose said.

Museum admission during the two-day grand opening will be $5, but there will be lots of free events just outside during that time: performers, singers and exhibitions, said Harold Young, the museum’s special events manager. After the opening days, admission will increase to $10, he said.

The closing party at Walnut Street will be free to museum members and at a “small admission” price to everyone else, Ambrose said.

Opening festivities for the new building will start at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 16, with a parade from the old museum to the new one five blocks away, Young said. Free public performances will start at 1 p.m., and at 6:30 p.m. a 2015 Sentra from Butler Nissan will be raffled off.

Proceeds from the $25 raffle tickets -- available at the Tubman, Butler Nissan and Habersham Records -- will benefit the museum, Ambrose said.

At 7 p.m. May 16, the S.O.S. Band from Atlanta will perform a free concert, Young said. And May 17 will be a “Praise Day,” with choir performances starting at 3 p.m. Those will include the McIntosh County Shouters and Atlanta’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Choir, Young said.

Planners are seeking celebrities, politicians and civil rights leaders from across the region, but none has yet confirmed, he said.

At 49,000 square feet, the new building is nearly six times the size of the Walnut Street location, which is 8,500 square feet, Ambrose said. And there is room for expansion. Electronics have yet to be installed, but the rest of the building is complete ahead of schedule and under budget, he said.

Now comes the task of moving collections not just from the old building but from various storage sites. The new building has room to show many pieces that have been in storage for years, Ambrose said, including some he has never seen.

The new building’s 40-odd rooms include galleries, a museum store, classrooms, function rooms and an event kitchen.

Opening exhibits will include the work of black artists from Georgia, including many items there wasn’t room to show in the old building, said Jeff Bruce, director of exhibitions.

The central rotunda will feature a commissioned work by Macon textile artist Wini McQueen, and the second-floor balcony will host a sculpture gallery, Bruce said. The exhibit on Harriet Tubman herself will expand, including items on loan from other collections, he said. The museum will have an exhibit on African American inventors, and the “From Africa to America” mural will be set up in proper viewing order for the first time, Bruce said.

Ambrose said he sees the museum’s mission as providing education, attracting visitors who will also patronize local businesses, enhancing culture and providing the arts instruction that’s being cut back by other agencies.

TUBMAN TO CONTINUE NEEDING PRIVATE AND GOVERNMENT DOLLARS

Ambrose thanked volunteers, individual and foundation donors, and local government for their years of assistance in building the new museum. He would like the Tubman to eventually become self-sufficient but said that for the foreseeable future it will continue to need private donations and government support.

Ambrose said the Tubman’s annual budget on Walnut Street is about $650,000, and he estimated the new building will cost $900,000 per year to run -- an increase of nearly 40 percent, which he called “not a tremendous jump from where we are now.”

The Tubman received $237,500 from the current Macon-Bibb County budget, but only after a debate over whether to cut its funding and allocations to other museums and programs. With an even tighter Macon-Bibb budget coming in the next three months, the question of whether to fund the Tubman is expected to come up again. Mayor Robert Reichert has proposed a dedicated 1 percent property tax to fund museums and other expenses, but there has been little movement toward establishing that.

Ambrose said the Walnut Street location gets 10,000 to 12,000 visitors annually, but many more come to events sponsored by the museum at other sites. With those programs consolidated in the new building coupled with the larger and more attractive facility, planners project an increase of 7,000 to 8,000 annual visitors, he said.

The museum will continue to have seven paid staff, including himself, but may hire some part-time help, Ambrose said. That means the Tubman will depend more than ever on volunteers, he said.

The museum expects new revenue from renting its rooms for events and has already received inquiries about that, Ambrose said.

“What I expect to happen is, in the future you’re going to see things happening (here) all the time,” he said.

The Tubman Museum opened on Walnut Street in 1985. But at least 15 years ago planning began for a new and larger building across from Terminal Station and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. The museum’s leadership at the time decided to start work before the expected $15.5 million cost was raised, and work on the half-finished building ground to a halt in 2005 when money ran out. Delays drove the cost up $2.5 million by the time work restarted in January 2014.

The Tubman project received $2.5 million from the special purpose local option sales tax that voters approved in 2011. In 2012, the Macon City Council approved issuing bonds in anticipation of SPLOST receipts to fund several projects, including the Tubman. The property had to be given to the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority in order for it to receive the public money.

Ambrose said at the time that the $2.5 million from the SPLOST would trigger matching pledges from the Peyton Anderson Foundation and Robert Woodruff Foundation. Together that provided the $6.5 million needed to restart construction, he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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