A long-awaited $58 million expansion plan that would nearly triple the square footage of East Austin’s historic George Washington Carver Museum is expected to receive the green light from Austin’s City Council later this month, with a unanimous vote of approval from the city’s Parks Board and other advisory commissions moving the project forward at the end of the expansion’s yearlong community engagement process — conducted entirely online for social distancing purposes, of course.
The Carver Museum, located at 1165 Angelina Street, was first a 1933 building opened as a segregated branch of Austin’s Public Library system, later renamed for the famous agricultural scientist George Washington Carver and converted to a museum space known as the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center after the completion of a larger and desegregated library facility next door in 1979.
According to the city, this made the facility the first African-American neighborhood museum in Texas — and along with event space and the library, the site now contains exhibits on local Black history, locally important cultural events like Juneteenth, and a center documenting East Austin’s genealogy.
With the completion of a larger museum facility adjacent to the original building and the Carver Branch Library in 2005, the 20-year-old master plan for the site outlined a further expansion over multiple phases, similar to the long-awaited plans to increase the size of the MACC in downtown Austin — but a concrete timeline for further growth never materialized until recently.
It’s unclear if the city’s current reckoning over inequalities in its investment into Austin’s minority communities encouraged the revival of this project after decades of inactivity, particularly since the funds for the expansion’s planning process were first approved by City Council back in 2019, but the urgency and tone of the process certainly feels inspired at least in part by these recent acknowledgements.
The expansion plan, shown off in a presentation prepared by the museum, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and consulting architects Smith & Company and Perkins & Will, would grow the museum building to 90,000 square feet, with indoor additions including new gallery and classroom space along with a 500-seat theater.
Outdoor changes at the property shown in the plan and visible in the slide above include a lawn and stage suitable for live events, a community garden, an open plaza space at the southern corner of the property, and a new parking structure.
Many of these improvements were defined during the community engagement process for the project, which would ordinarily include in-person neighborhood and other stakeholder meetings soliciting feedback — but pandemic concerns forced this process, and many others, entirely online.
The virtual engagement for the expansion, conducted throughout 2020, included three online community meetings and eight small group discussions with stakeholder groups including local artists, the Carver Museum’s staff, and Black employees of the City of Austin, among many others. One frequent question from engagement participants is how the museum will attain its funding for the $58 million expansion, which is expected to be built in consecutive phases — the current strategy is to seek a partial funding allocation from City Council, along with sources like private donors, corporate partnerships, grants, parkland dedication funds, and a possible Capital Improvement Project with the Austin Public Library.
Though the process will take several years, an improved Carver Museum represents a historic investment in a community becoming more recognized as one of Austin’s most meaningful cultural assets. The expected approval of the plan by Council at its May 20 meeting will arguably be the expansion’s most significant progress so far.