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Katherine Dunham Museum In Jeopardy Over Death And Taxes

Leverne Backstrom at the Katherine Dunham Museum
St. Louis Public Radio File Photo

An East St. Louis museum dedicated to a renowned activist and dancer faces an uncertain future.

The museum honoring the late Katherine Dunham owes $7,000 in back property taxes. A delinquent tax sale is set for Nov. 10 in the hopes that someone will pay the bill as an investment.

When Dunham died in 2006, the dancer and activist apparently willed the museum to her assistant, as well as the organization. The assistant has since died, but her heir now has an interest.

Because the deed is in the name of an individual as well as the organization, the 501(c)3 nonprofit that runs the home does not have tax exempt status. St. Clair County will continue to bill for property taxes until personal ownership is renounced.

Leverne Backstrom, the museum’s executive director, said the museum is a treasure that must be saved.

“I think it’s important for young people to understand that there is some good in East St. Louis. And I think when you have pride in something it just propels you to the next level,” Backstrom said.

Cheeraz Gorman is part of a small group working to help alleviate the situation. The advertising professional said the stakes are high for a number of reasons.

Inside the Dunham Museum
Credit St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Inside the Dunham Museum

“It’s not merely about saving Ms. Dunham’s legacy; it’s about saving East St. Louis,” Gorman said.

But there’s disagreement about how the issue of personal ownership will be resolved. Backstrom hoped that presenting the county with a simple death notice would suffice. But County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the ball is in the museum’s court, that it will have to find the heir of the person who inherited from Dunham and get a signature on a quit-claim deed.

Still, Kern is hopeful the situation can be remedied.

“She is an internationally respected person and we want to make sure her legacy is alive and well in St. Clair County,” Kern said.

The Katherine Dunham Museum is supported by memberships, donations and a few grants. Its monthly budget runs from about $4,000 to $6,500 a month. Learn more about the history of the institution and its namesake in this 2013 St. Louis Public Radio story.

Read more about how the Dunham technique lives on in dance instructor Keith Williams in this St. Louis Beacon story.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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