Minnesota African American Museum remains in mothballs

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2014 - 10:38 PM

Two years after “grand opening,” Minnesota African American Museum still closed.

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Six years after it was founded, the Minnesota African American Museum in Minneapolis has been kept from opening its doors because of financial issues.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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Six years after it was founded, a museum celebrating the history of blacks in Minnesota remains closed and at risk of losing nearly $1.4 million in state funding.

Backers of the Minnesota African American Museum said they’ve done everything required to qualify for the state grants, which are critical to the museum’s future.

“We are not giving up. I don’t care what they do,” said Shirlynn LaChapelle, the museum’s vice chair. “This means a lot. This is our history.”

The museum has taken in nearly $1.8 million from various local donors, including a $435,000 loan from founder Roxanne Givens, since 2008 and spent nearly $700,000 to renovate its planned home, a stately brick Queen Anne Victorian mansion just south of downtown Minneapolis.

Records show the museum spent nearly $25,000 for a “grand opening” in 2012. But the museum has been ensnared in a dispute with its contractor since then.

The home, yard and carriage house are in disarray, with peeling paint, exposed wires and construction materials scattered in the yard. A distressed “Summer 2011” sign sits on its front steps, and the phone is not in service.

Givens; the museum’s new president, Nekima Levy-Pounds, and new executive director Lissa Jones, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Civil rights activist Ron Edwards said he is troubled by the void the museum has left in the community.

“A lot of damage has been done to the African-American community because that museum was so important to the cultural and historical development,” he said. He’s worried that the museum may not open in his lifetime.

“I hope I’m proven wrong, but I don’t think it’ll happen,” he said.

High hopes early on

Givens and a group of founding members began work on the museum in 2008, with plans to raise $6 million to renovate the building.

The museum reached out to private donors like General Mills, which has given $300,000 to date. In 2011, the Legislature approved a $1 million grant for construction costs. But problems arose in August 2012, when the state said it would not release the funds until it was listed in the first position on the museum mortgage. The mortgage lender, Franklin Bank, would not cede that spot without some other form of collateral.

The museum was able to buy out its loan with the help of the Pohlad Foundation.

Meanwhile, e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune through a data practices request indicate that Givens forged ahead with plans to remodel the house, even though she had been warned to wait until the money was disbursed.

“I did warn Roxanne several times early on that it was a risk to proceed with the renovation work before the state grant was finalized, but she had made commitments to certain events and felt she had to go forward, I guess,” Kathy Kardell, an employee with the Hennepin County Office of Budget and Finance, wrote in a 2012 e-mail to county officials.

The contractor, Knutson Construction, eventually halted work because it said it was owed $800,000. A lien was placed on the property in November 2013.

Marina Muñoz Lyon, vice president and director of the Pohlad Family Foundation, said it’s not considering any other support to the museum until the lien is paid off and the museum opens its doors.

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