$4 million proposed for a new Unser Museum - Albuquerque Journal

$4 million proposed for a new Unser Museum

Preparations were underway for the opening of the Unser Racing Museum in this 2005 photograph. Albuquerque’s City Council is considering $4 million for the museum in a proposed bond issue. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

You can call it an exhibit in different priorities.

As Albuquerque leaders wrangle over how to spend $200 million in expected infrastructure money, museum allocations have emerged as a point of contention.

Mayor Tim Keller initially recommended the city spend $6.75 million on museums — the bulk of it for projects at the city-owned The Albuquerque Museum and for a public study center and museum collections storage facility.

But the City Council has since replaced Keller’s proposal.

The version that council budget chairwoman Brook Bassan presented has no money for The Albuquerque Museum’s planned education center and has less funding for the public study center and collections storage facility than what Keller proposed.

The council budget committee accepted that proposal which had $4 million listed as “Unser Museum” during a meeting earlier this month. The bill is slated for a vote before the full City Council on Monday. (See what the $200M in proposed bonds would go towards if voters approve.)

Once finalized, the program will go before voters via a series of general category bond questions on the November ballot.

Andrew Rodgers, Albuquerque Museum Foundation president and CEO, said the education center would expand the capacity of the museum school and learning opportunities for the community.

“This was the first year the (Keller administration proposed) putting a significant amount of money towards that project,” Rodgers said, adding that it was important for the future of the museum.

Bassan said she aimed to balance the mayor’s proposal with councilors’ priorities. The Unser Racing Museum — which is not city-owned and is located in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque — was on the priority list for Councilor Klarissa Peña, Bassan said.

The Unser Racing Museum opened in 2005 and contains interactive exhibits about the family that’s won nine Indianapolis 500s. It is a public-private partnership. The state owns the land and buildings, but the museum operates independently as a nonprofit.

Bassan said she heard the museum was possibly relocating out of town.

Peña said the $4 million would go toward relocating the Unser Racing Museum to Unser and Central SW — though no plan currently exists in the city’s master plan.

“The Unser family put Albuquerque on the map,” said Peña, who represents Albuquerque’s southwestern district. “They have such a legacy not only here, but worldwide. With Bobby now passed away, now their wives are entering the next phase of their lives. They want to carry out the wishes and want to build an Unser Museum on West Central. That way the collection would always be here.”

Peña said she is aware that a Nebraska entity is interested in the Unser collections and would move them to Nebraska.

“I, along with others, want to keep the collection in New Mexico,” Peña said. “We’re trying to accomplish that. The original Unser shop still exists on Central and we’re trying to carry out the vision.”

Attendance has always been a challenge for the museum, often drawing fewer than 20,000 visitors per year.

Peña said Al and Bobby Unser always wanted the museum to be on Unser and Central. Efforts to reach the Unser Racing Museum were unsuccessful.

“The political wheel drove it to Montaño,” Peña said. “It’s misplaced. It needs to be where the brothers and family intended it to be. Right in the heart of the city of Albuquerque.”

The Albuquerque Museum funding that Keller proposed — and the council did not include in its package — would have gone primarily to an education center. That’s the third and final phase of a museum master plan completed in 2000. It includes classrooms, education exhibit space and renovating a building built in the late 1970s, said Cynthia Garcia, museums liaison for the city’s Department of Arts & Culture.

The money Keller proposed would have allowed the museum to start construction in 2025 or 2026, Garcia said.

“We would encounter significant delays in building and opening the center should any of the funding in the Decade Plan be reduced or fail completely,” Garcia said. “Funding delays would also lead to increases in construction costs due to inflation.”

The Albuquerque Museum saw 92,671 visitors in 2022, which is up from the early pandemic years, but still lower than the 133,398 visitors seen in 2019.

City Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn said she’s heard community concerns about museum funding and is actively working on amendments that would include money for The Albuquerque Museum’s education center prior to the council’s final vote.

“I’m looking for every way I can think of to add money back to it,” she said. “We all know The Albuquerque Museum is a cultural gem.”

Within the confines of the package’s $200 million budget, Fiebelkorn said she does not know which other current line item she will propose reducing, though she does not see The Albuquerque Museum and Unser Museum projects as either/or propositions.

“That’s not how the budget works,” she said. “It’s not like they took money from one and gave it to another museum, (but) I do acknowledge the reduction for The Albuquerque Museum.”

Garcia said the city of Albuquerque hasn’t “acquired” any museums. However, there have been three built — The Albuquerque Museum, Explora! and the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.

“The two most recent, Explora! (a public-private partnership) and Balloon Museum, each began with different origin stories and stakeholders and each took several years to complete from conception to construction,” Garcia said. “A project of this nature begins with lots of planning — everything from a feasibility study, impact assessment, strong community engagement, to looking at potential funding streams and identifying property.”

Keller’s museum recommendation also included $250,000 for Explora!, which the council maintained in its version, and $1 million for roof and repairs at Casa San Ysidro, a city-owned historic museum in Corrales. The council’s plan excluded the Casa San Ysidro project but introduced $1.5 million for an education center project in the Tijeras Arroyo BioZone.

Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.

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