Crisis averted, Weeksville seeks long-term stability
Politicians want it included in the city's Cultural Institutions Group.
Faced with a financial scare, Weeksville Heritage Center turned to the public for help — and raised enough money to keep its doors open within six days. Now, the center is planning a final push to ensure the scare never happens again.
The Crown Heights museum needs about $35,000 more in donations to hit its $300,000 goal in a CrowdRise campaign it launched five weeks ago after a budget shortfall. With $300,000 in hand, it could start building an emergency cash reserve.
Weeksville Heritage Center has been offered marketing funds to pay for donor-seeking email campaigns for the final days of its CrowdRise effort, which will end on June 30, President and Executive Director Rob Fields told the Brooklyn Eagle.
He and Weeksville Heritage Center’s board and staff members are grateful that donors from as far away as Australia stepped forward with money for the museum, he said.
Weeksville Heritage Center is devoted to the history of one of pre-Civil War America’s largest free black communities.
Its fundraising hit the $200,000 mark on day six of the CrowdRise effort, Fields said. That was the minimum sum needed to keep the museum at 158 Buffalo Ave. from closing in July.
On day nine, the CrowdRise campaign hit the $250,000 mark, he said. That level of funding will give the museum some money to put toward repairs of its landmarked Hunterfly Road Houses, constructed as early as 1840.
“The houses are the heart of Weeksville,” Fields said.
More than 4,100 donors
Fields said foundation work and cosmetic renovations are on Weeksville Heritage Center’s to-do list.
“With any house, if you don’t take care of it, the earth will reclaim it,” he said.
As of Thursday morning, more than 4,100 donors had given more than $265,000, Weeksville Heritage Center’s CrowdRise page indicates.
Most of the money that has been raised will be used to carry Weeksville Heritage House through the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2020, which starts on July 1, while the organization strategizes financial planning.
Fields told the Eagle he appreciates money and support the city has given Weeksville Heritage Center — but he is holding out hope for the museum to be added to the roster of the city Cultural Institutions Group.
“There’s no black Brooklyn cultural institution in this group,” he said. “We think it’s time.”
CIG organizations receive unrestricted operating grants from the city Department of Cultural Affairs, which also pays their heat, light and power bills. There are 33 organizations in the group — the ones in Brooklyn are the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and Coney Island’s New York Aquarium.
The last new member the city added was the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 1998.
‘One of the city’s prized black institutions’
In May, the Brooklyn Black Elected Officials Coalition wrote to Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, urging him to include Weeksville Heritage Center in the Cultural Institutions Group.
Public donations to Weeksville Heritage Center are commendable — but “this cannot be how New York City funds one of its prized black institutions,” said the letter, which was signed by U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other elected officials.
Later in the month, City Councilmembers including Speaker Corey Johnson, Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy and others called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to include the Crown Heights museum under CIG’s umbrella.
There’s no process the museum can engage in that’s a path toward admittance to the group, Fields said. It’s up to Finkelpearl and de Blasio.
“It’s out of our hands,” Fields explained.
Weeksville Heritage Center was previously turned down for inclusion in the Cultural Institutions Group, the New York Times reported in 2013. That was before Fields came on board at the museum.
Weeksville Heritage Center received $450,000 from the city in FY 2019, but most of it was earmarked for programming and could not be used for operational costs. The museum has to apply for the money every year, and it’s uncertain how much it will receive.
‘Sacred African American ground’
In the Councilmembers’ call for the museum’s designation as a Cultural Institutions Group member, Cumbo called Weeksville “sacred African American ground.”
Kings County Politics reported that Cumbo said she was looking for $800,000 to $1 million annually for Weeksville Heritage Center as a CIG member.
“If we got $800,000 per year, it would be amazing,” Fields told the Eagle. That amount would cover payroll and a host of expenses.
A Department of Cultural Affairs spokesperson did not respond by deadline to an Eagle query about Weeksville Heritage Center’s chances for getting an entree to the Cultural Institutions Group.
In May, the Mayor’s Office said on Twitter that Weeksville Heritage Center is “an irreplaceable piece of our history and culture.”
The City of New York constructed and owns an education and cultural arts building at Weeksville Heritage Center.
The Hunterfly Road Houses belong to the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History. They were purchased in the 1970s, city Finance Department records indicate.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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