Months after losing a court battle over unpaid work, the beleaguered Minnesota African American Museum has now lost the historic Minneapolis home that housed its collection.
The latest chapter in a complicated, seven-year tangle of funding struggles and work disputes took less than two minutes in an auction held Tuesday at a counter in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Attorneys for the construction, plumbing and electrical companies that had previously won a court judgment for unpaid work at the museum joined together to purchase the property for $1.3 million: the total amount a judge found that they are owed. The group was the sole bidder at the public auction.
Supporters of the museum are now trying to strike a deal with Minneapolis Community and Technical College to display some items and exhibits, but the museum is without a permanent home — and some financial backers are out thousands of dollars in investments.
Leaders of the museum have not spoken publicly about their plans. The museum’s president, Nekima Levy-Pounds, declined to comment and its last executive director, Lissa Jones, could not be reached for comment. Other prominent supporters, including founder Roxanne Givens and state Sens. Bobby Joe Champion and Jeff Hayden either declined to discuss the museum’s sale or could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Former board member Harry Davis Jr. said board members and other museum leaders have put the court case behind them and knew Tuesday’s auction was to take place. He said he’s now focused on securing a good space for the museum’s collections, but nothing has been finalized with MCTC.
“It’s good to have museums and exhibits in a learning environment so young students can get exposed to African-American history,” he said.
The museum had been located in a Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion in Minneapolis’ Stevens Square neighborhood, just south of downtown. Organizers, led by Givens, began working in 2008 to raise $6 million to renovate the house.
Supporters said the Twin Cities needed to catch up with other large cities that already have museums celebrating African-American history and culture.
By 2011, the group had found a long list of donors, including Target, Wells Fargo, 3M, Best Buy and General Mills, willing to contribute to match $1 million in state bonding money. The project ran into trouble when the state declined to provide the money unless it was listed in the first position on the museum’s mortgage.
The museum eventually got help from the Pohlad Foundation, which provided a $410,000 loan, and hired Knutson Construction Services to begin remodeling the house. But that move happened over the objections of government finance officials, who warned that the museum needed to have more in private donations before moving ahead with major spending.
By 2013, Knutson had stopped working, claiming it was owed $800,000, and a lien was placed on the property. Last year, Givens wrote to state legislators for help “solving the current quagmire confronting the Minnesota African American History Museum,” which had still been unable to get the state money awarded three years earlier. Givens asked that the money be released, plus an additional $1 million.
Instead, the museum ended up in court with Knutson and a handful of other contractors, and other debts went unpaid.
Some similar efforts in other cities have faced challenges, as well. One academic study of African-American museums pointed to financial struggles of institutions in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and other cities, noting that the museums had to deal with communities that favored funding other types of organizations.
Marina Muñoz Lyon, vice president of the Pohlad Foundation, said her organization has received one payment of $50,000 toward its loan. She said the group would write off the remaining $360,000 following the property’s sale on Tuesday.
Muñoz Lyon said her organization is pleased some museum leaders are interested in finding a new location to share its collection of African-American history.
The museum’s website lists exhibits highlighting African-Americans in baseball, African-American folk tales and African-Americans’ journey to Minnesota and contributions in the Midwest.
“There is a story, and we’re grateful that there is an opportunity for that story to be told,” Muñoz Lyon said.