A per­fect fit for the Lewis mu­seum

Our view: Wanda Q. Draper has the right skills for a tough task.

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD -

The Regi­nald F. Lewis Mu­seum of Mary­land AfricanAmer­i­can His­tory & Cul­ture has been one of Bal­ti­more’s most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated cul­tural gems for more than a decade. Housed in a high-tech build­ing on Pratt Street down­town, it’s still easy to miss amid the crush of en­ter­tain­ment venues, traf­fic snarls and other dis­trac­tions around the In­ner Har­bor — de­spite its su­perb col­lec­tion of art and ar­ti­facts chron­i­cling more than 300 years of black strug­gle and achieve­ment in the state.

But that may be about to change with the mu­seum’s an­nounce­ment last week that Wanda Q. Draper, a vet­eran Bal­ti­more jour­nal­ist and pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive, will join the in­sti­tu­tion in Septem­ber as its new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. Ms. Draper, who served as one of the found­ing board mem­bers of the mu­seum when it opened in 2005, brings to the job the pas­sion, lead­er­ship skills and wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence the in­sti­tu­tion needs to raise its pro­file around the state and across the coun­try.

Though the mu­seum has mounted dozens of in­trigu­ing, well-re­ceived ex­hi­bi­tions since its found­ing, it’s also had to strug­gle to ex­pand its au­di­ence and meet a state re­quire­ment that it gen­er­ate $2 mil­lion, or half its an­nual bud­get, through pri­vately raised rev­enues. At­ten­dance and cor­po­rate do­na­tions are also down. Only about 33,000 peo­ple came through the mu­seum’s doors dur­ing the last fis­cal year, a drop of about a third from its all-time high of more than 50,000 visi­tors, while cor­po­rate sup­port has yet to fully re­bound from the fi­nan­cial cri­sis that be­gan in 2008.

Ms. Draper ac­knowl­edges the dif­fi­cult chal­lenges fac­ing the mu­seum but in­sists that such prob­lems can be over­come. Last year the Lewis hired a promis­ing new chief cu­ra­tor, Charles E. Bethea, who has al­ready be­gun work­ing on an ex­cit­ing new sched­ule of ex­hi­bi­tions. Ms. Draper plans to work closely with him to at­tract new au­di­ences, build up the mu­seum’s donor base and raise the in­sti­tu­tion’s pro­file lo­cally and na­tion­ally as a cut­ting-edge arts and cul­tural fo­rum that is as at­tuned to the con­tem­po­rary AfricanAmer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence as it is to the his­tor­i­cal forces that shaped it.

One of the first things the new di­rec­tor hopes to ac­com­plish is to put the mu­seum’s pub­lic and pri­vate school ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams back on track at both the ele­men­tary and sec­ondary school lev­els. Young peo­ple make up one of the mu­seum’s core tar­get au­di­ences, but lack of trans­porta­tion has been one of the big­gest bar­ri­ers to bring­ing them through its doors.

Ms. Draper also wants to bur­nish the mu­seum’s im­age through col­lab­o­ra­tions with other in­sti­tu­tions, such as the new Na­tional Mu­seum of African-Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture sched­uled to open next month in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Far from see­ing it as a com­peti­tor, Ms. Draper has em­braced the idea that her mu­seum’s as­so­ci­a­tion with that in­sti­tu­tion can only strengthen the Lewis mu­seum’s brand. Peo­ple who visit the mu­seum in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal will come away much more open to hav­ing a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence in Bal­ti­more be­cause they al­ready knowwhat­to­ex­pect. It’s a win-win for both in­sti­tu­tions if peo­ple who see one of them are then in­spired to visit the other.

There’s no ques­tion Ms. Draper has her work cut out for her mend­ing the Lewis mu­seum’s fi­nances and ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, re­build­ing its donor base and putting on top-qual­ity ex­hi­bi­tions of African-Amer­i­can his­tory, cul­ture and art that stir view­ers’ hearts and minds. But she’s a per­fect fit for the post. The new di­rec­tor de­scribes her task ahead not as a job but as a la­bor of love, and we have ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve her. We have wit­nessed Ms. Draper achieve amaz­ing things over her long ca­reer, and we look for­ward to be­ing amazed again by how much she is ca­pa­ble of ac­com­plish­ing when she puts her mind to en­sur­ing the Lewis mu­seum leaves an en­dur­ing legacy in Bal­ti­more.

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