The founders of South Carolina's largest private art collection have pledged $1 million to the creation of Charleston's International African American Museum.
The contribution from Susu and George Dean Johnson Jr. of Spartanburg is one of the largest received since museum organizers announced in December that they would need to raise an additional $10 million before starting construction.
Well-known Spartanburg boosters, the couple's 1,200-object Johnson Collection focuses on fine art of the American South, dating from the 1700s to the present.
George Dean Johnson, an Upstate native and Wofford College graduate, helped launch the Blockbuster video rental business and ExtendedStay America hotel chain. He's also a former state lawmaker who has founded several other business ventures, some of which operate as part of the Johnson Group. His real estate firm, Johnson Development Associates, helped secure land for the BMW manufacturing plant near Spartanburg and has built numerous projects in the Lowcountry.
He also was a law school acquaintance of former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who's on the museum board, and they worked together in the S.C. House of Representatives.
Susu Johnson, a former Spartanburg City Council member, led the development of their art collection, which was officially established as a limited liability company in 2002. They describe it as a "private collection for the public good."
“Time and time again, they have invested in education and in initiatives that make art and culture accessible and available," said IAAM CEO Michael Boulware Moore of the Johnsons. "We are incredibly proud that they have chosen to extend that commitment to the IAAM.”
The announcement comes just over a week after Moore appeared in Salt Lake City at a national genealogy conference, RootsTech, where leaders from the Mormon Church said they were giving $2 million to the museum.
The Mormon Church, which has a more than century-long history of genealogy work, will also be providing support from its organization FamilySearch for the museum's Center for Family History, a resource center for African Americans who want to research their ancestral roots.
Though museum leaders said in August that they had reached their $75 million fundraising goal needed to build, the fundraising efforts for the project are still in full swing. Due to rising construction costs, they're still working to raise an additional $10 million.
At the museum's most recent board meeting, Riley said they had raised about $7.9 million toward that sum. Museum officials confirmed that both this most recent donation and the contribution from the Mormon Church was included in that total, so the museum still needs to gather at least $2.1 million before construction can begin.
The museum, which was first publicly announced by Riley almost two decades ago, will be built on a waterfront site that was once part of Gadsden's Wharf, one of the most active sites for the U.S. slave trade.