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.
'It has been a disappointment'
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."
To be sure, black people are, in fact, generous when it comes to charitable contributions. A 2003 study reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that black Americans who give to charity donate 25 percent more of their discretionary income than white donors.
In the Coalition for New Philanthropy's 2004 study of minority giving in the New York City area, black Americans of all age groups contributed just slightly more than the nation's other two major ethnic groups, Latino and Asian. But art museums and cultural centers were low on the priority list of all minority groups.
As the Ali Center fundraisers discovered, their money goes instead to churches, schools and scholarships. "Art is important in some parts of the black community, but if you're giving money and have to choose between education and giving to a museum, you would give to education," said Mary Beth Gasman, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book on black philanthropy.
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 was 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.
Not yet a problem
Some museum executives say fundraising is a challenge, not a problem. But others note that several older African American museums are struggling, and they wonder how the new institutions will raise millions of dollars for rich endowments that help finance their operations in lean times.
The largest black museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where Rosa Parks's body was viewed recently, is struggling for money and attendance. The African American Museum in Philadelphia, with its half-million dollar debt, was nearly forced to shut its doors for good this year.
Sandy Bellamy, executive director of the $33 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum, so named because its deceased black eponym contributed $5 million, said black Americans volunteer to work as well as give money.
"For every city you're looking at, there are two or three museums that people are sustaining," Bellamy said.
Ed Able, president and chief executive of the American Association of Museums, said black Americans have not given traditionally, but newly formed organizations are changing that by showing wealthy black people how to create charitable tax shelters.
Gasman said a major reason why black Americans did not give in the past is that most were not asked, in the belief that they did not have money. On the other hand, she said, wealthy black donors were asked too often.
"I can't imagine how many times Michael Jordan is asked to contribute money," Gasman said. "He can't give to everything."
Estee Portnoy, Jordan's spokeswoman, would not confirm or deny that he was called. "We never comment on Michael and Juanita Jordan's financial contributions," she said.
Scott Novak, Woods's spokesman, said the golfer declined the Ali Center's request because he committed $25 million to building the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., which will open next month. "Tiger Woods has great admiration for Muhammad Ali's career and legacy," Novak said.
Barkley, who called Ali one of his greatest heroes during a recent radio talk show, could not be reached. But in a new introduction to his book "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?" Barkley said he frequently gives to charities. He bought four houses in Georgia for Hurricane Katrina victims, according to the book.
Smith's representatives said the actor was never asked to contribute money. Smith was on the set in San Francisco and did not attend the gala, but submitted a taped tribute to Ali that was shown during festivities.
King could not be reached through the e-mail address provided on his Web site. King made millions of dollars promoting Ali's fights.
The five-story 93,000-square-foot Ali Center overlooking the Ohio River teems with memorabilia, artwork and exhibits. There are so many moving pictures of Ali in his prime, and Ali, who is battling Parkinson's disease, in prayer, that the center seems alive.
The center is expected to generate $800,000 a year in retail sales, $350,000 in corporate sponsorships and the renting of space for private functions, and nearly a half-million dollars in memberships. But that is not enough to cover the $3 million yearly operating cost.
Given Ali's history, Gasman, for one, finds it baffling the museum is not receiving more support from black athletes.
"Muhammad Ali is not just this wonderful athlete, he's so much more than that," she said, adding, "I don't understand why the wealthy did not give."