November 16, 2011 - Robb Leland is proposing to create a new, nonprofit cultural entity to operate the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum in downtown Oxford and transform it into a place that exhibits both local history and works of art on a rotating basis at least five days a week.
"In my world, a museum is comprised of both history and arts," said Leland, who owns and operates ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame (5 S. Washington St). "People are accustomed to going to a museum to see an art exhibition or a history exhibition."
He's also proposing that his business be allowed to operate a sales area on the museum's main floor and have office space on the building's second floor. Both of these spaces would leased by him.
However, before any of this could happen, he wants to know what the Northeast Oakland Historical Society, which has operated the museum since the early 1970s, and the Village of Oxford think of his idea. He submitted his proposal to the village council last week.
Longtime Oxford resident Gerald Griffin, who's been president of the historical society for the last six years, is adamantly opposed to Leland's proposal.
"I'm not happy with it," he said. "I think it's a push for self-gratification by a businessman. He's only been here five or six months and he wants to take over that building. He wants to shove us out."
Leland insisted he's not trying to push the historical society out of the museum. He said he's simply trying to improve things and give more people access to the building.
"I'm very appreciative of what (the society's) done over the last 30 or 40 years to build their collection," he said. "They've done a wonderful job of compiling excellent collections and displaying them. But they're doing things, frankly, in a way that most museums do it today."
"Change is always painful, but I'm convinced this concept is a good one," he added.
Although the society operates the museum, located at the northwest corner of Washington and Burdick streets, and owns its contents, the building itself is owned by the village, so ultimately the museum's fate is up to the municipality.
"Maybe it's a terrible idea," Leland said. "I have a lot of ideas and not all of them are great, but I think this one might be pretty good. I just feel like it's a win-win-win for a lot of reasons."
Griffin disagrees. He views the historical society as the loser under this proposal.
"I'm going to fight it," he said. "I have to. We've got too much time and money and hard work invested in the place. We've put a new roof on it, which was close to $15,000. We repaired the walls. And this guy's going to come in here and take it all over – no. I've got to fight for the community."
Leland made it clear nothing in his proposal is carved in stone. "This is just a starting point" to engage the historical society and village in a dialogue about the concept," he said.
Creating the Oakland County Cultural Center
According to Leland's proposal, he will register a new, nonprofit organization based in Oxford called the Oakland County Cultural Center. The purpose of this group would be to raise funds for cultural events and groups operating in the Oxford area such as the historical society and the Michigan Portrait Society.
Leland would service as the cultural center's director during the first year. Subcommittees – comprised of community volunteers, teachers, residents, business leaders – would oversee activities such as education, exhibitions and fund-raising.
As part of this proposal, the historical society would remove all of its artifacts and displays from the museum's main floor (or "main gallery" as Leland calls it) and place them all in storage.
This would be done so the cultural center could display various exhibits, both history and art, that would change and rotate on a monthly basis.
"The gallery space would be operated solely by the cultural center," Leland said. More specifically, it would be overseen by the exhibition subcommittee.
"On the exhibition subcommittee, I would expect and hope that the historical society would have strong representation as would some of these local artist groups like the Michigan Portrait Society," Leland explained. "They would work together to coordinate an exhibition schedule that rotates between history and art. So, one month it might be history, the next month it might be art, then it's back to history.
"For example, there might be a Lone Ranger exhibit that would fall under the historical society. That exhibit might be in January and then in February there might an art show about Michigan landscapes. Those exhibits can rotate and come back. For example, every January, we could do the Lone Ranger exhibit."
Leland noted these exhibits also "could potentially go on loan to other museums in the area for a fee.
"That could be another way the historical society could generate revenue," he said.
Leland indicated most modern museums rotate their exhibits in order to properly and effectively display their large collections.
He said the old museum model was "We've got space. Let's fill it with as much stuff as we can. Let's close the cabinets and we'll dust them for the next 30 years."
The new model, which is what his proposal represents, revolves around utilizing the gallery space "in a much more flexible manner, so that it's essentially mobile; exhibits come in and they go out.
"If you look at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they have the third largest collection of any museum in the world, but only 10 percent of it is on display at any given time. The rest of it is in storage or it's on loan to other museums."
Despite what's contained in the written proposal, Griffin believes Leland's real motivation is to take over the museum and profit by it.
"I'm far from being dumb or stupid," he said. "I can see what he's doing. He wants us out of the main floor of the museum . . . This belongs to the people, not to Robb Leland. It doesn't belong to him."
Expanded days and hours
Under Leland's proposal the museum would expand its days and hours of operation to Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Right now, under the historical society's control, it's open on Saturdays from 1-4 p.m. for most of the year. During the summer, it's also open on Wednesdays from 1-4 p.m.
Leland said one of the main benefits of his proposal is that it will make the museum and its exhibits more accessible to the public "who I think desperately want to enter the museum."
"Every person I talk to – whether they're a business owner, resident of the community, someone traveling through town, teachers, students – they all say 'Yeah, that place looks awesome from the outside, but I never have the opportunity to go inside because the hours during which they operate don't meet my schedule."
"I take offense to that," Griffin said. "What about all the school (field trip) tours? I had three last Saturday. I've been up there seven days a week at times. We're open anytime anybody wants a tour."
"Have you tried to make an appointment to enter the museum outside of the normal hours? It's not easy," Leland said.
In Leland's view, having "more flexible" hours would better serve the needs of this community.
"This community is mobile, they're on the go, they're busy," he said. "They want to be able to go when they want to go into the museum. The way it's structured now, it's just not meeting the needs of that kind of market."
Adding a sales area
Leland's business, ArtCapsule, would provide the necessary staffing and security for the museum by manning the sales area, which he's proposing to display and sell frames, jewelry, greeting cards, etc. This space would be leased from the village, so "the square footage and boundaries . . . would be clearly defined," according to the proposal.
Leland wasn't sure at this point how large the sales area would be, but he would like it to include the old bank vault for displaying jewelry made by local artists. "I'm quite flexible in terms of the actual space," he said. "You give me a lot of space I can fill it, you give me a little bit of space I can fill that, too. The key is do that in a way that's valuable to the public."
Leland's proposal indicated that "a portion of all ArtCapsule sales will be donated to" the cultural center.
He's also proposing that ArtCapsule's sales area serve as the "museum gift shop" by selling museum-themed items such as photographic reprints (not originals). Sales of the goods would be consigned to ArtCapsule by the historical society, which would receive the proceeds "less commission (typically 40 percent)," according to the proposal.
Leland indicated ArtCapsule would not be responsible for the historical society's artifacts and displays located in the museum's basement area, which is not part of his proposal.
Historical society has concerns
Leland said he's given his proposal to the historical society, but the group won't be able to review and discuss it until its board of directors meets in January.
"They seem to be very open-minded and certainly very gracious to allow me the time to talk with them," he said. "It sounds like they're at least willing to take the proposal to their board of directors. That's a positive thing."
Based on his discussions with some historical society members, Leland said it seems the two biggest concerns for them are: 1) ArtCapsule providing security and staffing for the gallery; 2) moving and storing the society's collection at an off-site location.
"I don't want strange people in there, paid by him," Griffin said. "They don't know anything about our artifacts. They have no feeling for the village. (Leland) has no feeling whatsoever for the village. All he has a feeling for is the dollar sign."
Regarding the first concern, Leland said, "It's sounds like the historical society wants to have their volunteers exclusively operating the museum gallery."
However, he explained that "I don't feel that there has to be a person who knows every single thing about everything in the museum on hand at all times. If executed properly, the placards that accompany the exhibition pieces can tell the story."
If the historical society doesn't want his staff answering any questions about historical pieces, Leland indicated that's fine with him. All such questions can simply be directed to the historical society.
As for the off-site storage issue, Leland described that as a "hot topic" and something of great concern.
"I don't blame them," he said. "You have to do that very carefully."
In his proposal, Leland suggested two possible storage locations. The first is up to 1,600 square feet owned by Leland, who's willing to lease it to the society. The first 800 square feet would cost $1 per square foot plus utilities. The proposal indicated the storage space it's "located within five miles of the museum." When asked for its exact location, Leland replied, "For now, I'd rather not get into all of that."
The second option Leland offered would be for the society to store its collection in the old township office located in the village municipal complex on W. Burdick St.
If the society finds another location, Leland indicated he's fine with that, too.
"It would be solely up to the historical society to choose where and how best to store their contents," he said. "I simply wanted to make the offer.
"I didn't want to come to the table saying this is what I want to do, but it requires that you move this stuff somewhere else, I don't know where, I don't care where, good luck. I'm not going to say that. Instead, I wanted to come to the table with a full solution that tried to cover all the unknowns."
Griffin is opposed the idea of packing away Oxford's history.
"How's it going to be a museum if we can't use all of the artifacts that were given to us by the village people and people from the area?" he said. "This stuff belongs to the community. It was donated to the museum, not to a commercial operation."
Griffin indicated it would be extremely difficult to display some of the society's larger artifacts on a rotating basis.
"Have you noticed the number of very large items we have?" he said. "How many times have you moved a piano or an organ?"
Griffin noted, "If it's decided that we have to move, it's going to take us at least six months to get all that stuff out of there. We've got to re-catalog everything."
Leland noted that although he hopes the historical society and village will give him a timely response to his proposal, "I don't want to rush this thing."
"I fully expect something like this to take time," he said. "I hope it doesn't take years."
Griffin indicated he knows his answer right now – no.
"I think it's a slap in the face," he said.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.