Efforts to restore dilapidated house museum of African American art in Savannah, Georgia get significant boost

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The city of Savannah, Georgia plans to contribute $500,000 toward the renovation of a residential building that once hosted an African American art and culture museum.

Known as the Kiah house, the now-dilapidated property was formerly owned by Virgina Jackson Kiah, a venerated local artist and educator who transformed her home into a museum in 1959. The eclectic institution contained examples of hers and her husband Calvin’s art, portraits of community leaders, materials from historic buildings, artefacts from the Civil War and antique furnishings dating back to the 1700s—many of which belonged to Kiah’s mother, a former president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, whose experiences with segregation informed her passion for collecting. Kiah’s mother’s house in Baltimore now operates as a Civil Rights following a $3m renovation sponsored by Morgan State University.

After Kiah died at age 90 in 2001, her house museum became the subject of a 15-year probate court battle that prevented the property from being sold and renovated. In 2017, a Savannah State University professor and former colleague of Calvin Kiah, Deborah Johnson-Simon, established the Friends of Kiah Museum group to raise awareness of the artist and her home, and started a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to create a historical marker. While a building named in Kiah’s honour by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) was fully restored, the Kiah house and museum continued to crumble for years, encumbered with “blight” taxes levied by the city and a dramatic legal feud involving Kiah’s relatives, local officials and representatives of SCAD.

In April 2022, following prolonged negotiations, the Historic Savannah Foundation bought the house and replaced its collapsing roof, but made its desire public for another entity to take ownership. In August of 2023, the city of Savannah joined forces with the Galvan Foundation and purchased the house for $100,000. The Foundation will fund the remainder of the restoration. City officials told the Associated Press that the new Kiah house will highlight African American art and include living and working space for artists.

“The day we went into the property and looked at the holes in the walls and the floor, but yet you could still feel the presence of Dr. Virginia Kiah and you could tell that there was still something very special here,” Savannah mayor Van Johnson said in a statement.

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