N.O. African American Museum shuttered despite millions in public aid

The New Orleans African American Museum of Art in the city's historic Treme neighborhood closed for renovations almost five years ago. When it will open again is anyone's guess.

The New Orleans African American Museum of Art in the city’s historic Treme neighborhood closed for renovations almost five years ago. When it will open again is anyone’s guess.

Since 2012, almost everything that could have gone wrong has. The museum’s newly purchased administration building had unexpected termite damage, doubling the cost of repairs. A hurricane caused water damage. Mold turned up in one of the other main structures.

In 2013, the museum named a new chair for its board: Irvin Mayfield, who resigned not too long afterward in the middle of a scandal over his use of charitable donations meant for the city’s libraries.

Mayfield then came back for a brief stretch and secured the museum a loan from a local bank: First NBC, which went bust this spring and ended up in receivership. Now museum officials are unsure where to even send payments on the note, which they don’t have the cash for anyway.

A board divided

Former directors and staff say board members split over how to spend the millions in taxpayer dollars they had received, overextended themselves with ambitious ideas and failed to plan for the rising cost of construction.

The result? NOAAM has a brand new building but no money to furnish or staff it. The block full of cottages and villas that made up the existing museum are still dilapidated. And a whole swath of the neighborhood that once housed Congo Square and gave birth to jazz sits unused and closed to the public.

“Everyone in the neighborhood, even the newbies, would want that museum to reopen quick, fast, in a hurry,” said Al Jackson, a native of Treme who recently opened his own Petit Jazz Museum across the street. “And sure, the money is important, but for us -- for me particularly -- it's about the culture."

The museum has been on shaky financial ground almost since its inception in 1998. It closed down the first time in 2003 amid questions about millions in federal grants assigned to the museum by former Mayor Marc Morial in the closing months of his final term. Auditors ultimately concluded the money had been misspent, and the museum didn’t open its doors again until 2007.  

The city awarded the museum a $3 million Community Development Block Grant in 2010 with high expectations. The initial grant was supposed to help the museum kick off a $6 million restoration and expansion, allowing it to purchase a new climate-controlled administration building for storing delicate artwork and artifacts.

The museum used that money to leverage $1.3 million in state and federal tax credits in 2012 and 2014. And the Landrieu administration awarded the museum for another $25,000 from the Wisner Trust grant program in 2015.

That was supposed to leave plenty of money to make repairs and upgrades to the main Villa Meilleur and five cottages between Governor Nicholls and Ursulines streets.

Instead, the museum board now estimates the whole project will cost $15 million.

Unexpected costs

Termite damage in the newly purchased administration building doubled the cost of that portion of the project, leaving only a small portion of the grant money available to shore up roofs and perform emergency repairs on the villa and the oldest structure on the campus, the Passebon Cottage at the corner of North Villere and Ursulines streets.

Jackson and other neighbors were dumbfounded by the board’s decision to purchase and renovate another building, rather than putting the taxpayer aid into keeping the original ones open.

“Had I had 3 million bucks, I would have renovated the first five buildings and said, 'We're open for business, come in and see who we are!'” Jackson said.

But the city’s Community Development office approved the federal Housing and Urban Development grant with the idea that it would help purchase and renovate the rundown double across the street, at 1417-19 Governor Nicholls St.

Once the museum board decided to go that route, the city insisted on putting the administration building back into commerce. But then the museum board expanded the scope of that project, too.

The museum’s executive director at the time, Jonn Hankins, a former development officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art, led the process of redesigning the buildings on the main campus. Then, he said, he was blindsided by the board’s decision to add a new administration building.

“My whole interest was in restoring the main campus there, the main buildings,” Hankins said. “It seems as if the board decided to go a different way. I had taken a couple of pay-cuts just to stay on for a while, and used some of my own money, but even though we had enough money for construction, it wasn’t enough for the expansion they wanted.”

In separate interviews with WWL-TV, three former museum board members – Gina Recasner, Geoffrey Snodgrass and former chairwoman Marsha Broussard – said they put their all into the project, but were constantly surprised by unexpected costs.

First came the termite damage to the administration building they had just bought for $292,000; that’s a big reason why a purchase and renovation plan originally pegged at $1.2 million ended up costing $2.9 million.

Then came mold in the main villa, as well as leaks and other damage to the main campus buildings during Hurricane Isaac in September 2012. The board decided to push forward with the administration building construction project and close the main campus to visitors.

“It should have never been closed in the first place,” Hankins said. “That’s the plea I made, but they didn’t listen to me. I argued that if we began construction on Passebon, that would generate a public appeal for fundraising. I never understood the decision to close things down.”

The board fired Hankins in 2012 before starting any of the construction work on the administration building. Officially, the board said it didn’t have enough money to pay him. But Hankins and Recasner said it was because the board didn’t see eye-to-eye with its top employee.

“I don’t have any malice toward that board, but they created the problems,” he said. “I moved on.”

The Architect

There was also a conflict with the original architect on the project. Clifton James was selected to redesign the whole campus and started working on the Passebon Cottage plans in 2009, before the museum even received the $3 million grant. But some board members complained that he had to revise the plans multiple times before the Historic District Landmark Commission would approve them.

Then, when James filed initial plans for the administration building across Governor Nicholls Street, the HDLC was not able to approve them. His plans for a smaller administration building renovation were also submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office in Baton Rouge, but then the board called for a larger floor plan, so they could raise revenues by hosting events and conferences.

James said the problem wasn’t his drawings but the ever-changing scope of the project and indecision from the board.

“It was the most ridiculous way of doing the project,” the architect said. “That board caused so much confusion by changing my original proposal to the state. They wanted to add more space and a commercial kitchen to have meetings and functions. I didn’t have any problem with it; I worked for the board and did what they asked. But don’t blame me when it’s not approved at the state level.”

The board hired another architect, Gerald Billes, while James was still on the job and asked James to limit his work to the Passebon, the administration building and the slave quarters building on the main campus. James ultimately refused to share the project with Billes and was fired in May 2013.

At that point James had already been paid about $100,000 from the federal grant, but Billes ended up submitting the final plans for the whole project. Billes’ plans are the ones the museum used to qualify for state Historic Preservation Tax Credits and federal New Market Tax Credits.

The museum’s 2013 audit said it paid more than $81,000 for plans that did not comply with city codes.

The museum never tried to collect any of the money back from James, and James never pursued arbitration to try collect the $76,000 he claimed the museum failed to pay him.

“Some members on the board wanted a Process A, some members wanted a Process B,” James said. “In the end, you got a Process C that didn’t work.”

"We were going to renovate the new building but not the six buildings across the street.”

The board members who spoke with WWL-TV all insisted that they had accomplished something simply by keeping the run-down old buildings open for years without any kind of private support. But Recasner confirmed there was dissent on the board about the best way to proceed once the public money started coming in. She said she quit in 2014 because of the discord.

“Everybody was told throughout that all the buildings would be renovated with the monies,” Recasner said. “But right before I left, we were told that some buildings on the main campus would not be renovated at that time. That’s what got me upset. We bought this new building and we were going to renovate the new building but not the six buildings across the street.”

Recasner also said she questioned how the board’s treasurer, Michael Todd, was handling the museum’s tax credits.

A First NBC Bank development officer at the time, Todd helped the museum secure federal New Market Tax Credits with a $2 million loan with a First NBC subsidiary fund.

Todd defended that move as bringing in $780,000 in credits to the museum. He also said he leveraged the initial costs of renovating the administration building so the museum would receive $558,000 in state Historic Preservation Tax Credits. State law says those tax credits are not allowed for expenses paid for with state or federal funds.

Can the museum still survive?

Broussard, Snodgrass and Todd still think the museum can reopen and thrive now that the administration building is completed. The idea is to host events there and collect rental fees. But it’s been 10 months since it received its certificate of occupancy last September and the board hasn’t had enough cash on hand to open and operate it.

“Despite what opinion may be, the museum has a great building now and there’s a lot that can be done there,” Broussard said. “It provides adequate space, storage ability, and it’s a dry building. On the main campus, we couldn’t accept any art because of the situation in those buildings” with water intrusion.

But museum leaders have continued to hit snags, some of their own making.

The city put a hold on grant payments in 2015 when its contract compliance office discovered violations of federal prevailing wage laws and undocumented workers being used on the project.

Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield took over as chairman of the board in 2013, but stepped down in 2015 after WWL-TV exposed more than $1 million in public library donations he sent from the Public Library Foundation, where he was the president, to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a nonprofit he founded that also paid his six-figure salary.

Snodgrass said the board invited Mayfield back as chairman in the middle of last year. Snodgrass said Mayfield was working to finalize a $1 million line of credit for the museum with First NBC Bank. But just a few weeks after Mayfield’s first meeting back in charge of the African American Museum’s board, WWL-TV discovered that Mayfield had racked up $18,733 in hotel charges, meals, liquor and limousine services at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park in New York and charged it all to the Library Foundation.

The Ritz bill was issued to the Jazz Orchestra, but Mayfield made sure the library charity picked up the tab. The Library Foundation’s new leadership found no evidence that Mayfield was doing any library-related business during the trip and demanded that Mayfield pay the money back. Mayfield did not respond to those demands, but he was forced to resign from his own Jazz Orchestra after WWL aired its report in June 2016.

Snodgrass said Mayfield also left the African American Museum board for good at that point.

The museum still owes more than $1.2 million on the First NBC loan Mayfield helped secure, Snodgrass said. And in a final piece of bad luck, the bank failed this spring and went into receivership. Snodgrass said the future of the loan is uncertain.

Snodgrass said he and two other museum board members, Henry Coaxum and Adolph Bynum, are working with a local banker to put together new funding for the museum.

Todd, who is still on the board and serves as treasurer, said the board is confident it will eventually open the administration building and is planning to start a new capital fundraising campaign to hopefully get the buildings on the main campus fixed.

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