Six years after it had to leave the crumbling old Fayette County Courthouse, the Lexington History Museum may finally be close to getting a new home.
A city-sponsored feasibility report says it would cost about $770,000 to put the museum in the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center’s third floor, which was left unfinished when the rest of the complex of old Main Street buildings was renovated in 2002. Museum installations and fixtures would cost another $200,000.
Foster Ockerman Jr., a Lexington lawyer who has been the museum’s president for two years, has developed a good plan that could be done with a combination of city and private funding, said Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer.
Further discussions are needed, and city budget priorities must be evaluated before she can take a proposal to Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council, Hamilton said.
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“I think all of his plans are very feasible,” Hamilton said. “It’s mainly a question of what we can afford this year. I think eventually something will work out.”
The non-profit Lexington History Museum was organized in 1999 and opened in the old courthouse in 2003 after Fayette Circuit and District courts moved to new buildings. As part of the settlement of litigation between the city and state over the new courthouses’ property, Lexington had to invest $15 million in cultural projects, which have included the Downtown Arts Center and the history museum.
But because the city put off renovation of the old courthouse until recently, the building deteriorated and was closed in 2012 over lead paint dust hazards. Since then, the museum has had small, temporary exhibits in several downtown locations and online at Lexhistory.org.
While Ockerman said he would like to have had space in the renovated courthouse, which will begin opening this month after a $32 million renovation, he understands the building must be economically sustainable. The courthouse will house a visitor’s center; rental event space; offices for VisitLex and the Breeder’s Cup organizations; a Ouita Michel restaurant; and a bourbon bar.
“When people ask me why we’re not in there, I say it’s a $32 million project, we can’t afford the rent and it’s filled up with good tenants,” he said. “Short of having sidewalk access, the Downtown Arts Center is about the best place we could be.”
Ockerman noted that the arts center, two blocks from the old courthouse, is surrounded by four parking garages and is across Main Street from Central Library’s Kentucky Room archives.
As part of the city’s feasibility study, Ockerman worked with architects at Tate Hill Jacobs to develop a detailed plan for the 5,500-square-foot space.
“One of the problems with the old museum was we had too much space,” he said. “This allows us to rotate things out and keep the exhibits fresh.”
Ockerman said he has spent a lot of time studying what the nation’s most successful history museums are doing to attract visitors, which includes being more selective about displaying artifacts, doing more high-tech storytelling and changing exhibits frequently to keep visitors coming back.
His plan includes a main gallery telling Lexington’s story and a room for temporary exhibits. He envisions many high-tech displays, five virtual reality booths, a children’s area with low walls in the main gallery and a theater area where visitors will sit on benches from Lexington’s old Union Station train depot. He also wants to feature rotating exhibits from other local history museums to help drive their traffic.
“The next phase is to start to figure out where to get the money,” said Ockerman, whose private fund-raising goals include a small operating endowment.
Hamilton said the history museum now receives about $60,000 a year from the city. Before it can reach an agreement on the arts center space, the city and museum must negotiate a lease and agree on who pays construction costs.
Ockerman’s goal is to have the museum open by 2020 to celebrate the women’s suffrage centennial. The museum has put together an exhibit focusing on Lexington women who played key roles in the movement, including Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, Mary Barr Clay and Laura Clay.
“This is not a fast track,” Ockerman said of the museum plan. “This is an important project, and it’s important that we do it right.”