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Carver Museum expansion project enters planning process

Thursday, August 13, 2020 by Savana Dunning

The Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center is moving forward into the planning stages of an expansion project that’s been 22 years in the making.

Austinites voted to approve the bond to fund updates, construction and expansion on the East Austin museum in 1998. The plan for the building process is broken into three phases, the first of which was completed in 2005 and added a lobby, theater, classrooms, dance studio, darkroom, conference room, commercial kitchen, storage, outdoor plazas and expanded parking.

Besides being a repository for historical and cultural materials related to African American history in Austin and Travis County, the Carver also serves as a community center. At the project’s first community meeting, lead curator Carre Adams said the expansion is designed to create infrastructure for current and future generations of museum visitors and support a thriving Black community in the future.

“The story of this facility reminds me of a Frederick Douglass quote: ‘Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will,’”Adams said. “It is the story of Black people in Austin raising their collective voices and demanding space for their community, and today we are again demanding more as the needs of our current community have evolved and expanded.”

The city began revisiting the project earlier this year. At an African American Resource Advisory Commission meeting on Aug. 3, architect Terry Smith said the project had just exited its initiation phase on July 31, which involved outreach surveys and small discussion groups with museum staff, Austin civic leaders, artists and other community members to discuss what should be added to the second phase.

The suggested planned additions to the museum from the initiation phase include a Living Museum, improvements to outdoor spaces, expanded programming, more flexible facility spaces and an artists studio.

The expansion project team hosted the first planning stage community meeting on Aug. 8 to present the progress on the project and ask community members what amenities current and future generations of museum users will need. Attendees discussed repurposing the pool behind the museum and improving outdoor spaces for public use.

At the commission meeting, Commissioner Miriam Conner asked whether the planning team had looked into changing construction plans if the Covid-19 pandemic continues for several years.

Smith said the project was moving forward with the assumption that the pandemic will “end at some point,” but agreed that some component of the expansion should reflect the more dire possibility.

“It is a physical facility and a physical campus, so obviously the expectation for this expansion is that we want to not only continue the current uses that are being held at Carver but we actually want to increase those uses,” Smith said.

Laura Esparza, the division manager of the parks department’s Museums and Cultural Programs, said the larger spaces in the museum, such as ballrooms, will allow for social distancing and safe behaviors, and that the current ballrooms will be used as a voting location.

Commissioner Clifford Gillard said the increase in the use of virtual meeting spaces during the pandemic might reflect the need to add a virtual aspect or virtual campus to the Carver’s expansion plan. Esparza agreed, noting that their virtual Juneteenth celebration drew nearly 30,000 participants.

“It’s something we definitely should take into consideration,” Esparza said. “If there’s anything that we’ve learned it’s that we can have a much broader reach of all of our programming using the virtual method, and we think that’s something that is here to stay, because it invites very many more people in to participate.”

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