LOUISVILLE—The glamour, the popping camera lights of the paparazzi, and an impressive lineup of movie stars such as Jim Carrey, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Chris Tucker gave a glitzy Hollywood feel to the grand opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in this horse-racing town.
Lonnie Ali, the boxing champ’s wife, could barely hold back tears as she stood in the shadow of the $75 million center, with its soaring butterfly roof and its dozens of exhibits, replete with LeRoy Nieman paintings of “the Greatest” in his glory days.
“This,” Lonnie said as her husband stood by, “is the culmination of a . . . dream.”
The dream, however, has received little financial support from prominent black Americans. After a two-year campaign, only one monied black contributor, ex-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who is British, gave a substantial amount, $300,000.
The Ali Center’s experience is not unique. In recent years there has been a proliferation of black-oriented museums, memorials and cultural centers that cost millions to run. But some museum executives wonder how well they will fare when several existing institutions are struggling and corporate sponsorships often do not cover the costs of day-to-day operations. Among the problems, some experts say, is a lack of contributions from black people—especially prominent entertainers and athletes—whose history is celebrated by these institutions.
“We have yet work cut out for us to cultivate the interest of African Americans and athletes of many cultures,” said Michael Fox, executive director of the Ali Center. “It hasn’t happened yet at the level we expected. I think it has been a disappointment to date.”
The Ali Center’s experience was telling. Given Ali’s status as an icon and role model for many in the world of sports, the center recruited sports commentator Bob Costas and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a boxing aficionado, to raise money from athletes. They were surprised by the poor results.
“I was grossly disappointed,” Meeks said. “I know there have been difficulties with several . . . professionals who are paid well and might not be paid well if it were not for Ali breaking that [racial] barrier.
“We called and oftentimes we didn’t get called back,” Meeks said. “Then I tried to get other people who called, people who had connections, and we heard, ‘I’ll get back to you on that,’ and they never got back to us. I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would be difficult to raise money for Ali.”
Meeks would not name the sports figures who were contacted. But a top administrator at the Ali Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, said former basketball stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were contacted, as were golfer Tiger Woods and fight promoter Don King. Actor Will Smith, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his movie portrayal of Ali, was also solicited, the administrator said. None contributed.
With their numbers dramatically rising, black-oriented museums, memorials and centers are increasingly dependent on the largess of black people. But with the notable exception of Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, prominent black entertainers and athletes, and black Americans in general, tend not to contribute to these cultural institutions.
In the past two years, at least seven major black museums, cultural centers and memorials, amounting to about $1 billion in capital costs alone, have opened or gone into planning, including a Smithsonian national African American museum in Washington.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture opened this year in Baltimore, not long after the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s opening in Cincinnati last year. San Francisco opened its Museum of the African Diaspora in the past week. The National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg and a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington are in the works.