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Home / African American Museum of Iowa plans $5M renovation project
CEDAR RAPIDS — A $5 million renovation project prompted by construction of the city’s flood control system will change the face of Iowa’s only African American museum as it launches a vision for a bigger statewide presence.
The African American Museum of Iowa’s front entrance, which will be blocked by the planned floodgate along 12th Avenue SE, will be moved to the building’s east side. A $1.07 million contribution from the city of Cedar Rapids will help cover the entrance relocation, impacted exterior landscaping, an upgraded lobby space and updated parking lot at 55 12th Ave. SE.
But in its biggest campaign since it moved to its current building in 2003, the museum will be taking the project a few steps further to address long needed fixes and upgrades.
“Now is the time to make our statewide vision tangible,” said Executive Director LaNisha Cassell. “I do see that we have an opportunity to have a statewide presence … and the current building does not reflect what most people envision for a museum that should have that kind of draw.”
The museum is working to capitalize on the opportunity to make its biggest upgrades and expansions in 19 years as the physical barriers are installed along the Cedar River. Major fixes for and upgrades to a leaky roof, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, plumbing and other functional necessities have been eyed for several years.
On the outside of a modern facade, the parking lot along 12th Avenue SE will be replaced with landscaping and the reinstalled Trumpet sculpture inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., which was taken down in April.
“This museum has been historically underfunded in general,” said Zack Bohannon, campaign chair for Voices Inspiring Progress. “We’re looking to go big on this campaign and make sure that this isn’t just a city organization — this is a statewide mission, we are the African American Museum of Iowa.”
The $5 million campaign has been silently fundraising for a few months already with bold pitches that are asking some organizations for their biggest donations of the year. The museum has secured $2.05 million and awaits an additional $1.7 million in pending asks that Cassell and Bohannon are confident in receiving. By the end of the summer, the campaign chair expects to have $3 million in secured pledges.
In addition to the city’s pledge, funded by financial assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the museum has secured pledges of $750,000 from the Hall-Perrine Foundation, $100,000 from Transamerica, $50,000 from Collins Community Credit Union, $50,000 from GreenState Foundation and $30,000 from UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital.
UnityPoint’s gift is the largest it has given to a nonprofit, and Collins Community Credit Union’s gift is the largest it has ever given to a capital campaign, Bohannon said.
In addition to the renovation, the capital campaign will spur a multifaceted plan to increase the museum’s endowment, strengthen donor relations and make employee compensation more competitive.
The museum will shut down Aug. 6 and remain closed until September 2023. In the mean time, it plans to revamp traveling exhibits to establish a larger footprint in a state where African American education is both wanted and needed.
New traveling exhibits will be on more timely topics like immigration, beauty standards and modern protests. The upgraded, more sophisticated displays will visit never-before-seen communities for up to nine months instead of their previous two-week stints.
Starting Oct. 13, an exhibit on the so-called “school to prison pipeline” and systematic oppression in public education will be available at the Downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library.
With sustained demand for African American education that spiked after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis, Cassell said the museum has become more of a platform for programming — a shift away from just being a repository of history.
“National protests after George Floyd’s murder ramped up people’s willingness and desire to do something they hadn’t done before,” she said. “Not only self-educating, but (asking), ‘How can I be an ally?’”
As the museum makes good on the operative keywords in its name — “of Iowa” — Cassell anticipates that revamped travel exhibits will draw new audiences to the museum’s home in Cedar Rapids.
“The physical building itself is going to be huge. It’s going to be more welcoming and inviting,” she said. “We’re going to fit in better with the landscape of the community.”
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