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A fight brewing over the future of the DuSable Museum of African American History highlights a troubling gap.

The generation that took a fistful of dollars and the sweat of its brow to build black institutions is finding it difficult to hand over the reins to talented visionaries of the next generation.

This dilemma is at the heart of a divisive dispute over the future of DuSable.

Theaster Gates, 41, is an installation artist who likes to take discarded structures and turn them into cultural artifacts. Gates is best known for the “Dorchester Projects” — two dilapidated buildings that he turned into cultural institutions on the South Side.

But Gates has raised the ire of prominent grassroots and cultural activists with a proposal to tinker with the black history museum.

OPINION


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In a proposal recently submitted to the museum’s board of trustees, Gates said his goal is to “increase the ambition and inspire a major conceptual shift within one of the most significant culturally specific institutions in the nation.”

The document, leaked to activists, led to the formation of a group that calls itself the Concerned Committee for the Support of Independent Black Cultural Institutions.

“We vehemently disagree with this shift in direction from [museum co-founder] Dr. Margaret Burrough’s mission and vision for DuSable Museum. . . . This brazen attempt to deliver the DuSable Museum into University of Chicago management must be immediately halted,” the coalition said in a letter July 7.

Conrad Worrill

Conrad Worrill

Among the names listed on the coalition’s letterhead are authors and historians Lerone Bennett Jr. and Timuel Black, Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), Conrad Worrill, director of the Jacob Carruthers Center, and Jackie Taylor, founder of the Black Ensemble Theater.

“This is an ambitious young man attempting to use his vast notoriety and persona to unilaterally make moves that are not in the best interest of keeping the DuSable Museum an independent institution,” said Worrill.

Robert Blackwell Sr., who was fired last week, had served as the interim director of DuSable since December 2014.

“My position was not so much opposition to Theaster,” Blackwell told me. “My concern was DuSable’s structure was going to be changed, and the influence over it was going to be the University of Chicago.

“I opposed the lack of transparency and the secrecy,” he said.

DuSable Museum

DuSable Museum

Clarence Bourne, chairman of the museum’s board, did not return phone calls about this issue.

In an interview, Gates said he made the proposal as a member of the museum’s futures committee.

“My proposal was not in my official capacity as a professor at the University of Chicago or as a pawn of a white person or white university,” he said.

“What has become clear to me there has been so much disenfranchisement by parts of the black community that the only defense that we have is to fight.”

He said he believes the negative reaction to his involvement at DuSable is indicative of a bigger problem within the black community.

“The baton is rarely passed,” he said. “As a result, our institutions often die, or they flounder.

“What I don’t feel is recognized is I am one of the sons of black radical parents that trained me so I can create new futures. I am doing the work.”

We can hope this all will be resolved without more cultural wounds. Given everything black people are up against, this isn’t a fight the most talented among us need to have.

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