Fundraising begins for the American Writers Museum

Fundraising begins for the American Writers Museum
Rendering of the "Chicago Room" at the American Writers Museum (American Writers Museum Foundation)

In the story of the proposed American Writers Museum, we've had the prologue and the introduction. Now comes the long-awaited Chapter One, with the unveiling last week of plans for the museum's "First Edition," the inaugural stage in the creation of the nation's first institution devoted exclusively to American writers.

To recap: Inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum, devoted reader Malcolm O'Hagan, an Irish immigrant who spent his business career in the United States, established in 2010 the American Writers Museum Foundation to create a similar institution in this country. He selected Chicago as the home for this endeavor, an acknowledgment of the city's "literary legacy," he said in a phone interview, as well as its central location and "gritty nature."

Several grants, conceptual plans and feasibility studies later, the fundraising begins in earnest to realize O'Hagan's grand vision of a 60,000-square-foot stand-alone iconic institution. "That's about a $100 million project," O'Hagan said.


The more realistic and practical way to get there, he said, is the creation of an up to 12,000-square-foot space that would still make for a great and immersive visitor experience. The estimated price tag: $10 million.

"Oh, wow," said Lewis Jones, business development manager at Lumity, a Chicago-based nonprofit consultancy. "They are going to have an uphill climb, but it's not impossible to raise the money because people see cultural significance and want to wrap their arms around a museum in a historical part of the city. Their team needs to espouse how important the museum is and start talking about building plans if they are going to succeed in raising this significant amount of money."

The immediate challenge in populating this "First Edition" is how to best convey the arc and scope of American literature. "We could present it chronologically, we could present it organized by schools (of writing)," O'Hagan said. "We ended up approaching American literature on the basis of themes."

In its present proposed incarnation, visitors will first enter the Hall of Writers, an introduction to "the great men and women who created the rich, diverse traditions of American writing that continue to nourish readers and writers in the United States and around the world," according to the design concept.


Anchoring the room will be an interactive literary map, on which bibliophile tourists can pinpoint literature's most cherished destinations and memorable sites, including Grover's Corners from "Our Town," Tara, Oz and even detective Sam Spade's office. Elsewhere in the hall, visitors can enter on touch-screen monitors their own favorite writers, books and literary quotations.

The overall impact of this portion of the museum — which also will accommodate lectures, interviews, readings and staged performances — will be "the feeling that you are surrounded by the great American writers," O'Hagan said.

Chicago's rich literary tradition demands its own room. The aptly titled Chicago Room will be devoted to the breadth and depth of Chicago writers who put their distinctive stamp on American literature's Realism tradition. Among those represented will be Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, David Mamet, Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sandra Cisneros.

In a space devoted to telling the story of the creation of American Literature, an exhibit will highlight writers who evolved a uniquely American school of writing that broke with English and European literary forms and traditions. Among the authors represented in this section of the museum will be the likes of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau.


Genre buffs will find a great escape in "Mysteries, Dark Tales, Western Adventures," a space celebrating such masters as Dashiell Hammett, Chicago-based Sara Paretsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Zane Grey and Larry McMurtry, who elevated the mystery and crime, horror and Western novels.

"Shaping America" will focus on speeches, historical documents and other national treasures that defined and gave voice to American ideals. Examples O'Hagan cited would include the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln' s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, as well as novels and poetry that shaped the country and informed its culture and politics.

"We Will Be Heard" will be an exhibit devoted to writers who "overcame obstacles and transcended the boundaries of race, gender and social discrimination to achieve a more inclusive vision of what 'American' and 'American writing' can mean," according to the museum's concept document. The initial four writers featured will be Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Roth, Kate Chopin and Luther Standing Bear. This room will be divided into two sections, one devoted to each author's life and works, and the other to a diverse array of writers, artists, musicians, politicians and other public figures who will convey how these and other writers inspired them.

"A Children's Gallery" and "Word Play Studio," a multipurpose theater space, will engage children and foster a love of books, reading and writing through interactive encounters with classic children's books and beloved literary characters.

While there will be the inevitable gift shop, digital technology will afford the opportunity to create a more lasting souvenir of a visit to the American Writer's Museum: a reading list that visitors can compile over the course of their explorations.

Artifacts-wise, museum planners are looking to strike a balance between electronic presentation and the display of more traditional forms of exhibits. "We don't want to duplicate what others are doing effectively elsewhere," O'Hagan said, "nor do we have the resources to acquire what they have. We have talked to a number of (institutions) about borrowing some of their artifacts depending on the exhibit. It is not the intent of the museum to be in the prize-getting business."

Without funding, it is too soon in the process to talk location, O'Hagan said. "There are several potential sites in mind, but whether they will be available at the time we need them and the price will be right has to be determined," he said. "The museum (at this stage) will be in an existing building and the intent is for it to be in downtown Chicago or close to the Loop."

O'Hagan has set what he calls "an aggressive" goal to open in 2015. "It's contingent on getting the money we need to do it," he said. "I'm very conscious it is really difficult starting (to build a museum) from scratch. Other museums tend to happen because some very wealthy person has amassed a great collection of art and wants to house it and memorialize it. We're starting with nothing but an idea."

But it is an idea that is resonating with city officials (Mayor Rahm Emanuel has lent his verbal support at this stage) and members of Chicago's cultural community.

In a city that is home to the Poetry Foundation and the American Library Association, "partnering is absolutely essential," O'Hagan said. "The encouraging thing is that when I started I wasn't sure whether (the city's) other literary or cultural groups would feel we are in competition for funding. Happily, their response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic."


The Chicago History Museum, for example, has reached out to help with the development of the Chicago Room. "We have been impressed with the early planning and stand ready to help with the Chicago components," said museum president Gary Johnson in an email. "Visitors to this national museum will learn about Chicago writers and they will become inspired to learn more about the city they came from. A success for (the American Writers Museum) is a success for 'Chicago's museum.'"


Donald Liebenson, a Chicago-area freelance journalist, writes features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment.

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