Detroit — It was 22 years ago that artist Olayami Dabls was gifted a row of townhouses on the city’s west side to house his extensive African bead and artifact collection.
Within those townhouses and on the surrounding land at the corner of Grand River and West Grand Boulevard, Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum grew into a cultural institution. Each year, 35,000 people come from all over the world to see the beads, artifacts and outside art installations.
Despite the museum’s growing popularity, the buildings fell into disrepair over the years.
The roofs above the townhouses leaked and the basement was damp. A separate building that fronts the property on Grand River was in such poor shape that the roof caved in.
“The floors had dropped six inches,” Dabls said of the townhouses. “Everything had to be put back in place, which is a lot of work.”
Over the years, the museum has received funds for renovations, including more than $110,000 from a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign last month that includes a match by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
“I was elated, surprised and kind of excited that it happened the way it did,” Dabls said.
Dabls is working with a Los Angeles/Detroit based architectural design firm Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects and Allied Media Projects on the renovation of the museum’s three townhouses and a separate neighboring building. The goal is to provide indoor programming during colder months.
The museum is hard to miss on Grand River with its exterior adorned with a colorful mosaic of mirrors and beads. It sits in the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, which is roughly bounded by the John C. Lodge and Interstate 94 freeways, West Grand Boulevard and Grand River. The Motown Historical Museum and Henry Ford Hospital share the neighborhood, which has areas of abandonment.
Dabls began collecting beads in the 1980s after admiring the beads a vendor wore at the African World Festival in Detroit. He offered to buy the beads from the man, who took offense. The man told them the beads had been in his family for five generations.
From there, Dabls’ interest grew. He’s amassed a large collection that includes beads, belts, masks and grave markers. Some of the countries represented include Nigeria and Cameroon. On a recent day, Dabls showed off some of the collection he was hoping to display soon.
“Most of our people have never seen this stuff,” Dabls said. “Because normally Europeans collect it and put it in their private collection, and that’s it. That was my main reason for doing this museum. To make these pieces available for people who would never see them.”
Architect Lorcan O’Herlihy met Dabls a few years ago while his company was in town for business on other city projects. They talked about his mission for the museum, O’Herlihy said.
“That led to us brainstorming about the building in the front where the roof had collapsed,” he said. “How to create a gathering space inside that space. In the winter, people can also engage the museum.”
One townhouse holds the bead gallery displaying rows of colorful beads — many of them for sale. The other two townhouses are used for storage. Dabls envisions the townhouses holding rotating exhibitions of African material culture and space for an artist’s residence on the second floor.
This is the second phase of funding the museum has received. The first — a $100,000 challenge grant from the Knight Foundation in 2014 — funded the new roofs and waterproofed the basements.
With the latest funding the plan is to begin work on the interior of the townhouses as early as March, O’Herlihy said, adding he hopes this phase will be complete by June.
The project will include repairing and refinishing the interiors, building new gallery spaces and creating gathering spaces. The project will also install an ADA access ramp and create shelves in the basement for collection storage.
The museum raised $61,701 in the Patroncity campaign that ended Dec. 31, exceeding its $50,000 goal. The MEDC will match $50,000 of it through its Public Spaces Community Places program. The majority of campaigns, which are first vetted, are successful, but don’t usually exceed their goal by as much as the museum did, said Katharine Czarnecki, MEDC senior vice president of community development.
“I think that the bead museum is something we haven’t seen before,” she said. “It’s African-American heritage. We haven’t seen a lot of history of certain cultures. I think this will add value to this area of Detroit.”
The bead museum is a pillar in the community, said Daniel Washington, a resident of the NW Goldberg neighborhood and founder of the nonprofit Original Creativity organization.
Washington said that while the area has been underserved and slowly eroding over the years, renovation of the museum will help beautify the corner.
“It sits right on Grand River and is one of the first things you see,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know the history that’s in the building or the man that runs it. He’s been maintaining that corner.”
Washington said the museum provides something unique for Detroit. Investment in the museum is a step toward revitalizing the neighborhood.
“I hope to see it progress over the next couple of years,” he said.
Jeanette Pierce, executive director of Detroit Experience Factory, said she considers the museum an asset. The group provides tours throughout the city and the bead museum is sometimes one of the stops.
“I think it’s so great and so needed,” Pierce said of the museum’s latest efforts. “It’s really great to see investment in people that have been here, projects that have been here. Doing amazing stuff with very little resources. I can’t wait to see what will be done. I think it will become a more exciting and engaging destination than it already is.”