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Meet the new FWMoA

Executive Director Charles Shepard testifies to the power of creative thinking and hard work

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-03-22


“One does not have to be at the Chicago Institute to be an intelligent curator,” says Charles Shepard III, Executive Director of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. “This is an important point in my mind, because I think across the country, in smaller communities, a lot of times museums feel like they’re lesser or smaller or whatever. You can be a dynamo at any size. If you use your mind, you can really come up with terrific shows and go after them.”

“The wake up call is to get vigorous,” he continues. “It takes money, but it’s not all about money. It’s about hard work and good thinking. As old fashioned as that sounds, that’s really what it’s all about.”

Cheerleading? Sure it is. But Shepard’s cheerleading is backed by some sterling credentials. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art recently completed a major renovation and expansion project — its first since opening back in 1984 — that significantly improves not just the facilities of the building, with many more galleries and “friendlier” spaces, but offers a whole new level of accessibility to the public. It also puts the FWMoA in the position to greatly expand and diversify its permanent collection of work.

The cost: $7.5 million. As art museum expansions go, it’s a pretty nice price tag. And the museum was able to do all this using that same hard work and creative thinking Shepard extols above.

Just for comparison, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s expansion project began — as these projects often do — with consultants. Shepard almost laughs as he recalls the recommendations they received. “The consultants told us what consultants always do,” he says. “They fly in for a few days, ask you a hundred thousand questions, and essentially say ‘we love you, you have great potential, and for a paltry $20 or $30 million you could really pull something off’.”

Shepard’s reaction was similar to what anyone of us would have had: only $20 million, huh? “I thought that was a project that was… disproportionate, if you will, to the community,” Shepard continues. “Not just the arts community, but the community as a whole. There are many things worth raising money for in this community, and $20 – $30 million for the museum seems… that’s a lot of money.”

So, Shepard and the people involved decided to look at the expansion project another way. “Let’s say someone walked though the door and offered the museum $2 million,” Shepard says. “Bone honest, wouldn’t we be pretty darn glad if that happened? And what would you do? What would you do first and how would you make it work?”

The $2 million hypothesis game lead to a process that was driven by the idea of how much the museum could do for how little. In the end, they discovered they could meet all their needs for about $5.5 million. “We calculated we could get a new ‘pod’ — we’re a pod-oriented building around a central atrium — into which we could put three permanent galleries and an auditorium; which would allows us to convert the existing auditorium to a shop; which would allow us to convert the shop into a print study research center; which would allow us to divide up the galleries that we have into five, which would give us a new outdoor gallery for sculpture; and if we took the pod and separated it from the rest of the building, it would give a new regional arts gallery in the atrium.”

The resourcefulness of the people behind the museum’s renovation and expansion project served them well for another reason. Though fundraising had been quietly going on for about a year when the project became public in late May of 2008, the economic crisis just a few months later saw many of the financial streams the arts partially rely on — grants, foundations — dry up or go away, with around $2 million still left to raise in order to reach the capitol campaign’s goal of $7.5 million.

Hitting that number seemed daunting at times, but Shepard says people were extremely generous. “I think our success has been based on people’s trust that their gift is an investment in something that is really going to happen, that’s not pie-in-the-sky,” Shepard says. “We’ve never exaggerated what we can do, we built a track record before we started looking for money. I was here three or four years before we ever started asking for money, which is the way I like to do it. The combination of the nature of the project and, I think, our credibility helped us raise the money.”

Now, shortly before the revamped and expanded Fort Wayne Museum of Art is about to reveal itself to the public with an exhibit of Andrew Wyeth works, Shepard seems pretty darn proud of what they were able to accomplish. And he has every right to be. It’s the first major renovation the museum has undergone since it opened in 1984 (it cost $4 million back then), and the facility has gone from two-and-a-half (ish) galleries to 11 galleries, and includes all the features Shepard outlined above, and then some.

Perhaps most importantly, the gallery spaces seem to have a warmer, more intimate feel compared to the enormous areas that were there previously. “You used to look to the left and the right, and there’s a gallery and there’s a gallery,” Shepard says. “It has no nuance, it has a sort of cavernous feeling to it, which I’m sure was exciting 28 years ago, but when I talk about diverse makers and diverse media, I need diverse kind of space. I need to be able to move in chapters, so to speak, rather than open-ended verse.”

The “diverse media and diverse makers” Shepard references was part of the impetus behind the museum’s renovation in the first place. While the expansion cost $5.5 million, the capital campaign drive the museum announced in May of 2008 called for $7.5 million; the remaining $2 million was to expand the FWMoA’s art collection. “We were focusing on prints almost exclusively, and I love American prints, but to tell you the truth, I think we need to think about more glass, wood, sculpture, photography and a variety of things,” he explains. “The public is very interested in that. So I thought we needed more storage space, we needed more galleries and different kinds of rooms.”

With the new storage space, Shepard estimates the museum can grow its collection by about 425%. Shepard says that the museum has been criticized for focusing on “just” American art, but as he sees it, the variety represented there makes for one of the richest and most diverse art scenes in the entire world. “The American arts scenes has more ethnicity, more variety, more media than anywhere else in the world. So you don’t need to go broader than that; you just need to do that. In fact, the challenge in the next 20 years will be to get that done, so that the museum has all the different media represented, from decorative arts, commercial arts, fine arts… All different manners of making, and all different manner of makers. The collection, to me, will be our ‘portfolio’ that we leave to the community.”

The museum also includes a larger library and “Imagination Stations” — an interactive exhibition for kids 12 and under. Shepard says that art museums have looked at the success that science museums have had with “hands on” activities that art museums didn’t seem to be able to do.

But Shepard seems most excited by the museum’s new public print and drawing study center, a smaller room off one of the main galleries (where the old gift shop used to be, for those familiar). When talking about it, Shepard the curator, administrator, and fundraiser seems to fade into the background, and Shepard the art historian and enthusiast takes the stage. “Lots of museums have print rooms, but those are primarily for scholars and staff for curatorial type work,” Shepard says. “I wanted a sort of jewel-like additional gallery, storage space, and research center, that the public could select what they want to see from an on-line or off-line catalog, make appointments and come in and see prints up close and personal, hold them right in their hands.”

This sort of public accessibility is something that art museums all across the country are tackling right now, and among similarly-sized communities, Fort Wayne is probably a little ahead of the trend. 25 years ago, Shepard says the constituency of an average art museum was very predictable — a group of people in two or three zip codes who self-identify as arts lovers. And of course, Shepard and the FWMoA love those people. But that person, the self-identified arts lover, is already motivated to seek out art. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art will have great stuff for them, but the people Shepard spends the most time trying to reach are what he says used to be called “the disinclined.” They aren’t disinclined for any one reason — it’s not money or geography. It boils down to the fact that they have not really identified what the visual arts mean to them. “We’re surrounded by thousands of visual images everyday, beautiful things in magazines and on TV and on your computer,” Shepard explains. “Your screen savers are beautiful. So, where’s the lack? ‘I don’t lack for visual things.’ So the goal I have is to go after that person. I get out of my house and go to their house, so to speak, first and foremost as a gesture to say ‘I’ve got something I think you’re going to like.’ If I can show you that, and peak your interest, you may want to come over to the museum.”

“I’m a preacher for American visual arts, but I’ve got to get the people who aren’t paying attention to think about it, to look at it. The thing that’s beautiful about being a visual arts preacher is I can do it with a picture, which is a lot more compelling than words.”

The exhibit Wyeth: An American Legacy which runs from March 26 through May 1, came about through a partnership with the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, and represents the kind of show Shepard believes the museum will be able to do more of in the future. And with the FWMoA’s renewed emphasis on acquiring works of art and building its own collection, Shepard hopes they’ll eventually author or co-author shows of their own. “Some of those shows may travel, spreading Fort Wayne’s name, and some may have a life right here, depending on the nature of the beast. But it really means we have a whole new territorial future.”

“We’ve really been very, very ingenious, I think, about how to get the most out of this building, which excites me to no end, because I think we are then able to say to the community that we did our work. On $30 million, you ought to be able to do your work. But we got everything we wanted with much less than that.”

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The Fort Wayne Museum of Art Grand Re-opening weekend begins Saturday, March 27. It starts at 11 am, and the museum is offering free admission for the entire opening week.

The weekend’s run-down of activities is as follows:

Saturday: March 27th
10:40am - Memorial Park Middle School Jazz Ensemble
11:00am – Mayor and other dignitaries are present, cut ribbon.
12:00 – 4:00 pm – Afternoon activities begin with…
12-1 pm: Local choir sings
1-2 pm: The Three Rivers Jenbé Ensemble performs
2-3 pm: Executive Director Charles A. Shepard III gives a tour of Wyeth: An American Legacy, Treasures from the Farnsworth Art Museum

3-4 pm: End Times Spasm Band performs
8:00 pm – An Evening for the Young and Young-at-Heart!
Enjoy a night of fabulous music and entertainment, munchies provided by Hungry for Home, a cash bar and prizes given out throughout the evening!
9:00pm- 2am –TEXTual Healing
Don’t miss this incredible special presentation of TEXTual Healing, a unique performance by Paul Notzold. Notzold has performed in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, New York City, San Francisco and countless other cities across the globe.

9:00 pm-2:00 am: Experience John McCormick’s light and sound installation in front of the Imagination Stations then visit the LUSH soap company who will be providing olfactory entertainment and complementary hand massages to sooth away dry and tired party hands.
9 pm: Orange Opera
10 pm: Husband and Wife, Glowfriends
11 pm: Drumming Phenomenon
11 pm: Metavari
12:30-1:45 am: DJ performs,

Sunday: March 27th
Family day – Free!
12:00 pm – 4:00 pm – Enjoy kids activities with regional artist Justin Vinning. Watch screen printing demonstrations by artist and owner of Good Stuff Design, Shaun Malinowski. Children can pick a design, see it screen printed, and take it home.

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