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Slavery museum donations dropped steeply

MORE: National Slavery Museum timeline and archives

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

Federal tax forms for the bankrupt U.S. National Slavery Museum for the past four years show that donations to the museum dropped steeply in 2008, the last year the museum raised money.

For that year, the museum reported just $44,758 in “contributions and grants,” a contrast from the $577,173 reported for 2007 and from the nearly $940,000 reported in 2005.

The museum ended 2008 more than $117,000 in the red. It’s now about $7 million in debt.

The museum, now in bankruptcy proceedings in a Richmond federal court, recently filed four years of missing tax returns with the IRS and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees charitable fundraising in Virginia.

Those four years of returns—2008 through 2011—were never filed by the museum, which ceased operations in mid-2008.

Now the museum has an attorney and a new accountant, who got financial information from the museum’s former accountant and filed the returns as part of the museum’s effort to renew its tax-exempt status with the IRS and regain its state authority to solicit donations.

While the attorney, Sandra Robinson, declined to make the returns public, they were obtained through the state consumer affairs office.

The museum, which was to be located in Fredericksburg on donated land in Celebrate Virginia, spent millions of dollars on architectural plans and other work. But construction on a museum building never began, and the museum’s fundraising never met expectations.

By 2008, the recession was beginning, and former Gov.  Doug Wilder—the moving force behind the museum—was urging the Fredericksburg City Council to grant a tax exemption for the nonprofit museum.

By the end of that year, the museum had missed tax payments to the city. By early 2009, the museum’s offices were empty, the executive director seemingly gone, and Fredericksburg officials were unable to reach Wilder.

The 2008 tax return shows only $44,758 in income. It reports that staff salaries—which had been more than $150,000 in 2007 —had dropped to $73,934, $42,500 of which went to director Vonita Foster. Foster’s salary in previous years had been double that.

In filing the returns, the accountant added a note explaining the bankruptcy, and saying that the operational staff “abruptly quit running the day-to-day operations of the museum in August 2008.”

The museum’s biggest asset—the land, which was valued on tax forms at more than $17 million—had depreciated, and the museum ended the year $117,098 in the red, having spent more than $160,000 for the year.

By 2009, the returns show, the museum had no activity—no income, no salaries, and no expenses except a $3,364 loss due to depreciation of assets.

The 2010 and 2011 returns also show $3,364 in depreciation, and all three list $9,000 in assets, listed as “art.” The museum had collected artifacts and art related to slavery from various people, some of whom now want their artifacts back if they’re not going to be displayed.

The 2011 return also values the “Spirit of Freedom” sculpture garden—the only thing ever built at the museum site, and now overgrown and neglected—at $50,458.

The museum is trying to reorganize, and has filed an organization plan with the court that counts on $900,000 a year in fundraising, once it is cleared to renew its fundraising activities.

It’s due back in court for another hearing on the reorganization plan in June.

 

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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