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Artlink gets new Executive Director
Betty Fishman to reitre after 15 years; Deb Washler to lead arts organization
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Deb Washler remembers her first encounter with Betty Fishman, Executive Director of Artlink. Washler was an art student at Saint Francis, and she had dropped off her first piece for the annual Artlink member’s show. “Betty called me at home and said ‘You need to come back in.’” Washler says. “So, she takes me to the back room, and proceeds to take my whole piece apart, instructing me the whole time. She puts it back together, looks at me and says ‘can you do it right the next time?’”
Washler, 29, laughs when she tells the story (she even thought it was pretty funny at the time), and though it may not make the most auspicious of first meetings, Washler must have done something right: she has been appointed to take the position of Executive Director at Artlink, a gallery that features the work of national and regional artists, when Fishman retires at the beginning of July.
Washler doesn’t know how many other artists got the same treatment from Fishman, but thinks she probably has a lot of company. The Executive Director of Artlink for 15 years, Fishman has a reputation for bluntness, though everyone agrees that she’s neither unkind nor personal. “Absolutely. Never personal,” says Fishman. “But I’ve had 81 years of experience, so I think I have a right to comment. Nobody has ever had a question as to what I meant. You know, I just… tell it like it is.”
Fishman herself doesn’t remember that particular meeting with Washler (“It sounds like me,” she says), but she recalls Washler struck her as a “very sensible, straightforward, good-thinking young woman” when Washler served on the artists’ panel at Artlink.
Artlink has been around since 1978 (moving into its location at 437 East Berry in 1991), and Fishman is widely credited with turning it in to the prominent showcase it is today. Fishman plays down the idea that she’s “made” Artlink. “It’s been a passion of mine and I’ve worked for assiduously, I would say,” she says. “We’ve been successful and accepted by the community and by the artists.”
But anyone familiar with Artlink might intuit what the trickiest part of Washler’s job could turn out to be, at least initially — Washler would appear to have pretty big shoes to fill. “I’m not filling anyone’s shoes,” Washler says. “I’m just taking the position.” But she concedes that it might be hard for the arts community to separate Artlink from Betty Fishman, because “…right now, those two are together,” she says.
A native of the Auburn area and a photography artist, Washler earned her arts degree from Saint Francis and worked for a photography studio for several years. She filled in for Karen Thompson at St Francis for a year, and worked at Arts United before taking her current position at Director of Business Development for the Fort Wayne Ballet.
Fishman thinks that Washler’s mix of artistic and administrative experience will serve her well at Artlink. “Because this is a small staff, it requires many hats,” Fishman says. “First of all, her art background. It’s absolutely essential that you understand art and artists. But you also have to manage the artists panel and be a staff member at the board of directors. You must be accomplished in seeking funds, you must be able to take care of the classes that we offer. All those things have to be overseen.”
Fishman isn’t worried about Washler’s ability to handle the job, or how people will take to Washler as Artlink’s Executive Director. “I think that because she’s such a fine young woman they (the community and the artists) will respect her and work with her. She’s well-deserving.”
Washler fell into the field of arts administration almost by accident. You might think that arts administration is a typical option for any student with an arts degree to explore after college, but in reality very few follow that path, simply because, in most cases, they don’t even know it exists.
“When you’re a student, you think ‘okay, I’m going to do great art work, then I’m going to get a job with an advertising agency, or I’m going to teach, or I’m going to get another job to support my art.’ I don’t think anybody ever thinks ‘I really want to open or run an art gallery, and I know how I’m going to get that experience.’” Washler says.
Like Fishman, Washler brings her own artist’s perspective and a love of art to the job. “It’s about art. It’s about the fact that you facilitate a beginning for a lot of young artists,” she says. “I know that was a big part of this process for Betty.”
Washler says it would be presumptuous of her to talk about any changes she might implement at Artlink. She concedes that in a year, things might be different, but right now, she has no intention of going in and making huge changes. Besides, why mess with something that’s in good shape anyway?
“She (Betty Fishman) has a wonderful little gem over there,” Washler says. “She’s always had the best art shows, she’s always been very conscious of the artists in this community. She has a strong board, strong volunteers. So you combine all of that, and it’s just been a really wonderful place.”