For the fifth time in three years, the Museum for African Art has been forced to delay opening its new home at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, in East Harlem, as it continues to work to raise the money to finish the project.
Elsie McCabe Thompson, the museum’s president, said the institution needed to raise about $10 million to finish construction on the site, which occupies the bottom floors of a 19-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern.
Ms. Thompson declined to say just when the museum, which had been slated to open later this year, would be ready. It closed the gallery in its temporary quarters in Long Island City, Queens, nearly seven years ago to focus on the new development.
“With some soul-searching, we decided not to open a portion of the building,” she said, or do a cheaper design that would drain “out the very life of the building.” Ms. Thompson, who has worked for 15 years to convert her dream into bricks and mortar — or, in this case, concrete and aluminum — added, “Africa deserves the best that we could give it.”
As of last year, the museum said, it had raised a total of $86.3 million for the project, which includes an education center, a library, a cafe and a gift shop. A June 2011 financial statement showed that it had received more than $20 million from the city and state in the previous 12 months; the federal government has chipped in with tax credits. The more than 70,000-square-foot space cost nearly $44 million, according to the financial statement.
“Elsie dreams big,” said Margarita Aguilar, executive director of El Museo del Barrio, several blocks south on Fifth Avenue. Ms. Aguilar has developed and hosted educational programs with the African art museum and said the museum’s opening should increase traffic to neighboring arts institutions, turning the area into a “cultural hub.”
Both the museum and the 116-unit condominium broke ground in 2007, just months before the financial crisis hit. At the time, the museum projected that its new home would open in late 2009.
Last month the developers of the condominium project, Brickman and Sidney Fetner Associates, began a new marketing campaign and rechristened the building, at 1280 Fifth Avenue, “One Museum Mile.” The idea was to capitalize on the string of museums flanking Central Park’s east side, beginning — or, in the developers’ eyes, ending — with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 82nd Street. Units have been on sale since June 2010, and so far 9 have sold, and another 16 are in contract, said Jackie Buddie, a spokeswoman.
El Museo del Barrio averages more than 250,000 visitors a year. The African Art museum has predicted that it will attract more visitors than that, but museum officials have declined to detail how they reached that estimate or to answer questions about their fund-raising.
“It’s a critical moment in the fund-raising campaign,” said Kenita Lloyd, the museum’sdeputy director and chief operating officer. “We’re in the middle of sensitive discussions about naming rights.” Previously, Ms. Thompson had said that naming rights could be worth up to $50 million.
The museum’s struggle to raise cash is a familiar problem at cultural institutions around the country. In addition to construction costs, Ms. Thompson has estimated the museum’s yearly operating costs to be $8 million, about twice what it currently spends when it is not operating a building that is open to the public.
Alan J. Friedman, a museum consultant in New York , said the biggest problem facing museums was building up sufficient operating funds.
“Donors and the government are very finicky about what they want to support,” he said. “They love to support a glamorous exhibition and highly targeted educational programs, which means every museum is desperate to build an endowment or generate revenue to cover the unglamorous stuff,” like wiring, air-conditioning and general operating expenses.
The museum’s president is not the only Thompson looking for donations. Ms. Thompson’s husband, William C. Thompson Jr., is running for mayor next year. A former comptroller who was the Democratic nominee in 2009, Mr. Thompson last week resigned from the chairmanship of the Battery Park City Authority to focus more intensively on his campaign.
Without a permanent home, museum staff members have been focusing on education and training programs and have helped organize traveling exhibitions. So if you want to see shows that the museum has developed this year, you might try Houston, for a glimpse of the South African artist Jane Alexander’s sculptures, or Raleigh, N.C., for a retrospective of the work of the Ghanian artist El Anatsui. Still farther away, the museum has put together a show of art by the painter Ibrahim El-Salahi that is on display in the United Arab Emirates.