DuSable Museum CEO: ‘We’re in a new day’

Perri Irmer discusses last year’s board resignations, current finances, future plans and the OPC

DuSable Museum president and CEO Perri Irmer (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Things looked bleak for the DuSable Museum of African American History 15 months ago.

The institution, the oldest independent Black museum in the United States, had long operated on a budgetary deficit: in 2016, it was $1.3 million. Exhibitions had been on display for years. At the end of May, a third of the board, including Chance the Rapper, political majordomo Ken Bennett and Eric Whitaker, a physician and Obama family friend, resigned.

The museum thanked them for their service but otherwise kept mum. The ship was battered but did not sink.

Exhibitions on Black servicemen in World War I, the 1919 race riots and legendary museum founder Margaret Burroughs opened. Corporate sponsors have donated engaging interactive displays. Mayoral candidates debated in its auditorium. The first South Side Pride festival was celebrated in its historic, Daniel Burnham-designed Roundhouse rotunda, still capped by the original pine-wood roof.

DuSable president and CEO Perri Irmer conceded the museum is not out of the woods yet but said the worst has passed. Attendance is up 63% since she took the job in 2015. Ambitious restoration work is planned on the Roundhouse, potentially tripling gallery space, and the adjacent plaza.

The facility may one day host weddings and other events, with handsome retail space available right next to the University of Chicago Medical Center, a jobs behemoth.

And, while still operating in the red and with a small staff, the budget deficit has decreased over 60%. If all goes according to plan, Irmer expects the DuSable to operate in the black by the end of the year.

“We’re in a position now when we’re really moving forward like gangbusters,” she said. “We’re in a new day now, where African American institutions and other culturally specific institutions really are coming into our own, and we are really demanding fairness and equity … We are doing very well in terms of the trajectory towards success.”

Five new board members — including former Chicago Board of Trade chairman Patrick Arbor and businesswoman and south suburban Olympia Fields trustee Desiree Watkins — are serving under recently elevated chairwoman Patricia Knazze.

“Everyone’s rowing in the same direction,” Irmer said. “That was not the case last year, with the few members who had different ideas than the majority of the board.”

Irmer has not addressed the resignations since last summer when, in a letter to Crain’s Chicago Business (which broke news of the departures), she lambasted what she called biased coverage compared to that of resignations the downtown Auditorium Theatre’s board.

“It’s ironic that the trustees that chose to leave when they did were complaining about finances when there wasn’t a lot of effort to raise money for the institution and that we were handling the money that we did have — which has always been at a deficit — very well,” she said.

Irmer acknowledged the unfortunate timing of last year’s departures and said they caused quite a bit of financial distress.

“All nonprofits need money. All nonprofits, especially arts and culture and especially African American organizations, have a hard time making money,” she said.

Nevertheless, the DuSable lost no “major foundational relationships” during the upheaval. Irmer said the museum is expanding relationships today. The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation gave a grant to fund the accreditation process with American Alliance of Museums. The process is due for completion in 2021.

The DuSable’s entire collection will be cataloged, and Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, is on the accreditation committee.

While the DuSable has museum-grade storage facilities and a collection of over 15,000 items, 98% of them have never been displayed.

“History at Large,” showcasing large-scale, never-before-seen artifacts from the permanent collection will open in October. Next year, “The March,” a virtual-reality project produced by Time magazine and actress Viola Davis that plants viewers amidst the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, will begin a nationwide tour next year at the museum.

Irmer conceded that the DuSable’s financial issues have not allowed robust acquisitions, but she hopes to house some of the archives from the Johnson Publishing Company, which printed Ebony and Jet magazines from its Chicago headquarters.

“It’s a massive collection; there’s a lot to go around,” she said. “Just as a Barack Obama really could not have existed anywhere but this environment — this cradle of Chicago — the same could be said of Johnson Publishing Company.”

And beyond exhibitions and materials, Irmer has physical improvements planned for the DuSable.

“We’ve really got to make an effort to stay dynamic and continue to draw people back into the institution,” she said.

Interior restoration on the 66,000-square-foot Roundhouse, once a horse stable, will commence this year. The rectangular buildings adjacent to the rotunda would become galleries. As a Smithsonian affiliate, the DuSable is allowed to borrow from the Smithsonian museums.

Efforts will be made to keep the rotunda’s historic 1880 architecture intact, with changes made to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and environmental standards. It will be available to rent. Retail space would open out onto its 17,000-square-foot plaza, which Irmer hopes will attract local merchants and restaurateurs. Both the rotunda and revived plaza would bring in new revenue.

If all goes according to plan, the DuSable will be at the western edge of the “Museum Campus South,” alongside the Museum of Science and Industry and the Obama Presidential Center — to be established at an inflection point in the nation’s history.

“It’s exciting, it’s amazing, it’s frightening, in terms of the racism and the racial violence that we’re seeing,” Irmer said. “I think that the stories that we tell, the work that we do here and our mission are more important than ever — arguably as important as the first civil-rights movement.”

Irmer said the DuSable wants to boost the visions of Black excellence and accomplishments once promoted by Ebony and Jet to youth “who are bombarded on a daily basis with negativity and terrible stories about themselves.

“We had our origin as kings and queens, physicians and engineers, people of greatness and creativity who were then enslaved. Now we are still in many ways overcoming that tragic and cruel history of the United States.

“The fact that President and Mrs. Obama have chosen to bring their foundation and the Obama Center here to the South Side speaks volumes, and it’s incredibly positive,” she said. “It creates that momentum of dialogue, expression and narrative that is so important to the Black community — not only here in Chicago, which is really, I think, ground zero.”

While the OPC Museum will contextualize the Obamas’ story within civil rights, Black, Chicagoan and American history, Irmer said the DuSable aspires to “be able to present the entire narrative of our great people,” which preceded the Obamas and will continue after them.

And for the record, Irmer, a member of the Obama Foundation Inclusion Council, thinks the OPC will and should be built as planned.

“I’ve been fairly outspoken in terms of my opinion of the people who put parks over people,” she said. “I think that the folks who are coming in to say that the Obama Center shouldn’t be built in a park didn’t care about the park before, and the majority of them aren’t from the community. Parks were built for people, and you’re talking about communities that really need it.”

She opposes preserving Frederick Law Olmsted’s original designs over “advancing an entire community,” calling those who protest investments that would draw people into parks “illogical.”

“When you look at it as an urban planning solution, it really is a beautiful thing — to be looking at the visitors who will be coming down the Dan Ryan or from Midway Airport, the sphere of influence and positive impact is really much larger than Jackson Park,” Irmer said.