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Hillsborough County to explore creating new African-American art museum

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s last African-American art museum lasted only about six years before it closed in 1997 due to financial woes.

Now, county leaders want to try again.

County commissioners on Wednesday gave unanimous support to a proposal from Commissioner Les Miller to explore establishing a new museum, likely in downtown Tampa. It would showcase past and present African-American paintings, sculpture, jewelry, costume, and other art and crafts.

"This is something that is vitally important," said Miller, the county’s only black commissioner. "It teaches a rich history of what happened in Hillsborough County."

The vote instructs county staffers to begin looking for potential sites on county and city of Tampa land or to seek land from a benefactor. They must also put together a plan for public outreach and efforts to get local philanthropists on board.

"I’m asking staff to turn over every rock they can to make it happen," Miller said.

Miller was a friend of Israel "Ike" Tribble, a black civic leader and former president of the Florida Education Fund who founded the African American Museum of Art in 1991 in a converted bank building on Marion Street.

The museum featured the Barnett-Aden African-American art collection, which the non-profit purchased in 1990 when it was valued at $7 million. The collection depicted the culture and lifestyle of African-American people dating back to the 1850s.

The museum reported more than 60,000 visitors through the end of 1995. But two years later, it was losing $250,000 a year and Tribble faced pressure to close it. It was shuttered later that year. It wasn’t clear Wednesday what became of the collection.

Miller said a new museum will survive by partnering with the private sector. It could organize art events that coincide with Hillsborough’s Black Heritage Festival and draw more visitors to the county.

"They didn’t have that back in 1991," Miller said.

The Tampa Bay region already has an African-American cultural museum in St. Petersburg — the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, opened in 2006. The museum includes artwork but few artifacts.

About 200 people per month view the museum or visit to take education programs, said executive director Terri Lipsey Scott. It relies heavily on donations and also grants, including $32,000 from St. Petersburg.

In time, Lipsey Scott hopes the Woodson can become a regional museum. But she said she welcomes the addition of any other venues that highlight African-American culture and art.

The Tampa Housing Authority also has long-term plans for an African-American museum, focused on history.

In other action Wednesday, county commissioners:

• Approved the renaming of "Uncle Tom Road" in Riverview after Miller raised concerns about its racial connotation. After discussion with the one person who lives on the road, the county decided to rename it Tom Road.

• Gave preliminary approval for the county to move ahead with the creation of a Black Heritage and Cultural Council, to identify and preserve black history. Commissioner Victor Crist said the group is needed to save black history that’s in danger of being lost.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected]mpabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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