From Boston's John F. Kennedy Library to Southern California's tribute to Ronald Reagan, America's 13 major presidential libraries get about US$65 million a year from the federal government. That opens the facilities, which typically gloss over their namesakes' faults, to criticism that they are taxpayer-funded "centres for presidential spin."
The Obama Presidential Centre in Chicago's Jackson Park will take a different route, opting out of the presidential library network operated by the National Archives and Records Administration —and the millions of dollars in federal support that go along with membership.
Agency officials on Thursday confirmed the split, which was not disclosed last week when former President Barack Obama unveiled conceptual designs for the center. In the months leading up to the announcement, it was widely assumed that the center would have a presidential library, full of documents and artifacts that was part of the NARA system.
"It's surprising," said University of Louisville professor Benjamin Hufbauer, author of a book on presidential libraries. "My short take is that it's good news. Most of [the libraries] are centers for presidential spin. They're propaganda centers run by the federal government. Should the government be doing that for presidents?"
According to the conceptual designs, the Obama centre will be a three-building complex consisting of a high-rise museum tower and two low-slung structures: a "forum" containing an auditorium and a library building. In a break with convention, the latter will not house a collection of presidential documents and artifacts. Those will be stored in existing NARA facilities. Nonclassified documents will be available online.
The break from the National Archives will free up the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit group charged with building the center and raising funds for it, in several ways.
The foundation won't have to amass an endowment equivalent to 60 percent of the construction cost of a NARA-operated presidential library. The foundation also won't have to adhere to the agency's stringent architectural and design standards for presidential libraries. And it won't have to pay NARA to help run an agency-controlled portion of the centre.
All that could save the foundation tens of millions of dollars, more than making up for the loss of federal funds.
Indeed, Hufbauer said, the foundation will be able to channel money that would have gone to the endowment to programs and unconventional features of the center that Obama mused about last week. They include a recording studio that the former president said would be built to host artists like Bruce Springsteen, Chance the Rapper and Spike Lee.
Amy Brundage, a spokesman for the foundation, characterized the new arrangement with NARA as "mutually beneficial."
It "better reflects the way people access information in this digital age. Our goal here was to create, with NARA, a new model for the next generation of presidential centres," Brundage said in an email.
Yet the arrangement confounded expectations previously expressed by NARA officials.
In a 2015 web post, for example, U.S. Archivist David Ferriero said the planned Obama library would increase NARA's presence on Chicago's South Side, "where we already have the National Archives at Chicago and a Federal Records Centre."
The shift also appeared to disrupt the plans of the centre's architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York. A large-scale model of the centre that they displayed last week envisioned the library building as a NARA-type facility, largely devoted to storage.
Questioned about that aspect of the plan, the architects said it was no longer current.
A NARA spokesman, James Pritchett, confirmed Thursday that the Obama centre would not receive funds from the National Archives. However, if NARA lends documents or artifacts to the Obama center's museum for display, the centre would be subject to the agency's regulations regarding those materials.
Brundage did not respond to questions about the estimated cost of the Obama Presidential Centre and the foundation's fundraising goal. The centre is expected to cost at least US$500 million.
On Thursday, the Obama Foundation released a study which estimated that the centre will have an economic impact of US$2.1 billion on Chicago's South Side during construction and its first 10 years of operation.
A groundbreaking is expected to be held in 2018. Foundation leaders have said the centre will open in 2021.
In fiscal 2015, NARA provided a total of about US$65 million to the 13 presidential libraries. The library of the most recently built presidential centre, devoted to the presidency of George W. Bush, received US$6.2 million. Boston's Kennedy library got more than US$7 million, the most of all the facilities. Herbert Hoover's, in Iowa, received the lowest amount, about US$2.2 million.
The modern concept of presidential libraries began in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal papers to the federal government and formed a nonprofit group to raise money to build the library on his estate in Hyde Park, N.Y.
When President Harry Truman decided he wanted a library, too, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, creating the system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries.
As the number of presidential libraries grew, Congress in 1986 required foundations to create a private endowment to offset increasing operating costs. The George W. Bush Foundation, for example, raised more than US$500 million to build the library and cover the endowment.
Obama would have been required to have an endowment equal to 60 percent of the cost of the library portion of the centre under a 2008 law. His most recent predecessors needed to reach only a 20 percent threshold.
Originally published on CHICAGO TRIBUNE