Draper helps bring turn­around at mu­seum

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DRAPER , Un­der her ste­ward­ship, this once-ail­ing mu­seum has be­gun show­ing signs of re­newed vigor.

“This has been a real turn-around story,” said Drew Hawkins, the for­mer manag­ing direc­tor of Mor­gan Stan­ley Wealth Man­age­ment and a new mu­seum board mem­ber re­cruited by Draper.

“Wanda came in with a vi­sion,” Hawkins said. “She knew what had to be done. She lev­er­aged her Rolodex and her re­la­tion­ships to get the sup­port she needed. She wasn’t afraid to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions re­gard­ing staff and pro­gram­ming. And in fairly short or­der, the mu­seum has be­gun op­er­at­ing in a much more fis­cally re­spon­si­ble man­ner.”

When Draper be­gan her new job in Septem­ber 2016, the mu­seum was mount­ing ex­hibits it couldn’t af­ford and that few peo­ple came to see. There were no curbs on staff ex­pen­di­tures be­cause de­part­ments ef­fec­tively op­er­ated with­out bud­gets.

“There was a num­ber,” Draper said, “but no one knew what it was. Peo­ple didn’t know how much money they had to spend dur­ing the year.”

Year af­ter year, the mu­seum failed to raise the $2 mil­lion re­quired by its found­ing agree­ment with the state. Tax­pay­ers kicked in an ad­di­tional $880,000 over two years to make up the dif­fer­ence.

“There was no eval­u­a­tion of out­comes,” Draper said. “There is now.”

Though Draper can point to many ac­com­plish­ments dur­ing the past two years, there’s no ques­tion as to her most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment. For the first time since 2008 and just the se­cond time in the mu­seum’s 13-year his­tory, the Lewis ful­filled the state re­quire­ment that it gen­er­ate $2 mil­lion in rev­enues each year, or half the in­sti­tu­tion’s op­er­at­ing bud­get.

David Taft Terry, the Lewis’ ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor from 2006 to 2011, said that the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis made it dif­fi­cult to meet that man­date.

“The great re­ces­sion hit,” said Terry, now an as­sis­tant his­tory pro­fes­sor at Mor­gan State Univer­sity. “Fundrais­ing is al­ways hard for cul­tural non­prof­its. The re­ces­sion made it harder still.

“I’m happy to hear that they’re turn­ing the cor­ner. They’re a won­der­ful in­sti­tu­tion that should be sup­ported.”

A. Skipp Sanders be­came ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor upon Terry’s de­par­ture. Sanders, who re­tired in 2016, could not im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment.

Other key met­rics have be­gun mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, though the growth is less dra­matic. To­tal at­ten­dance has be­gun inch­ing up, driven by an in­crease in stu­dent vis­its. That’s im­por­tant; the Lewis’ fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion is why it, un­like most other Mary­land arts or­ga­ni­za­tions, has the sta­tus of a quasi-state agency.

In ad­di­tion, the Lewis has be­gun mak­ing its first ten­ta­tive for­ays into serv­ing an on­line au­di­ence. When a ma­jor web­site re­design is un­veiled Dec. 1, the pub­lic will be able to browse about 500 of the roughly 10,000 art­works and his­toric ar­ti­facts in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion from their home com­put­ers or smart­phones.

There’s room for im­prove­ment, of course. Nei­ther at­ten­dance nor stu­dent vis­its yet come close to the goals that Draper has set of 60,000 mu­seum guests each year, in­clud­ing 20,000 pupils.

But state leg­is­la­tors charged with over­see­ing the Lewis’ per­for­mance are thrilled.

“When Wanda took over, I told her what was at stake and what we ex­pected to hap­pen,” said Demo­cratic law­maker Adri­enne A. Jones, speaker pro tem of the Mary­land House of Del­e­gates. Jones chairs the House Ed­u­ca­tion and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Sub­com­mit­tee which holds bi­en­nial pub­lic hear­ings on the mu­seum’s fi­nances.

“Not only did Wanda do as we asked by mak­ing the [fi­nan­cial] match, she sur­passed it — and she did it in a short pe­riod of time. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, that is very, very rare. It has been a tremen­dous turn­around.”

Draper said she’s ben­e­fited from decades of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in com­mu­ni­ca­tions for such or­ga­ni­za­tions as the Na­tional Aquar­ium and WBAL-TV. These jobs honed her busi­ness and lead­er­ship skills in both the non­profit and cor­po­rate cir­cles.

“I cut my teeth in a world that mea­sures time in 10-se­cond in­cre­ments,” she said of her years in tele­vi­sion. “The non­profit world doesn’t do that. Be­cause I don’t come from the mu­seum world I don’t have a mu­seum mind­set. I have a man­age-the­bot­tom-line, get-it-done mind­set.”

Though she hasn’t spent her ca­reer work­ing for mu­se­ums, Draper is deeply knowl­edge­able about the Lewis’ his­tory. As a found­ing board mem­ber, she helped plan ev­ery as­pect of the in­sti­tu­tion-in-progress for five years, from se­lect­ing the par­cel where the fa­cil­ity would be built to gen­er­at­ing monies needed to ac­quire the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion.

El­iz­a­beth Mer­ritt, vice pres­i­dent for strate­gic fore­sight for the Amer­i­can Al­liance of Mu­se­ums, said it’s “be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon” for mu­se­ums to re­cruit lead­ers with non-tra­di­tional back­grounds who have lim­ited or no ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in the field. She said out­siders were more likely to suc­ceed when, like Draper, they ei­ther have pre­vi­ous fa­mil­iar­ity with non­prof­its or come into a mid-level po­si­tion and work their way up.

Draper’s ef­forts to turn around the Lewis might have been nec­es­sary and long over­due, but they haven’t been pain-free. In late 2017 and early 2018, Draper cut $374,000 from the bud­get by elim­i­nat­ing nine jobs. Five po­si­tions were va­cant, but four staff mem­bers (in­clud­ing some in high-vis­i­bil­ity posts) were shown the door.

But Draper also has brought in fresh tal­ent.

One chief hire was Jackie Copeland, who has worked at mu­se­ums (most re­cently the Wal­ters Art Mu­seum) for three decades. Now, Copeland is the Lewis’ direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and vis­i­tor ser­vices and serves un­of­fi­cially as Draper’s se­cond in com­mand. An­other cru­cial ad­di­tion was Alexis Davis, the mu­seum’s direc­tor of fi­nance and ad­min­is­tra­tion. Davis al­ready was fa­mil­iar with the Lewis’ fis­cal woes when she joined the in­sti­tu­tion; she pre­vi­ously worked as an ac­coun­tant for the Cross Keys firm that pre­pares the mu­seum’s an­nual au­dit.

Draper said their strengths and var­ied back­grounds com­ple­ment one an­other.

“Hav­ing peo­ple like Jackie and Alexis on the team keeps me fo­cused,” Draper said. “I un­der­stand the whole man­age­ment piece. I get it. They can put it into the per­spec­tive of this in­dus­try.”

It was Copeland who came up with the idea for “Mary­land Col­lects," an an­nual se­ries of high-qual­ity, low-cost ex­hibits. In­stead of leas­ing art­works from other mu­se­ums — an ex­pen­sive process that typ­i­cally takes years — Copeland bor­rows art­works by mod­ern masters owned by well-heeled lo­cal res­i­dents.

“His­tor­i­cally, when we brought in big trav­el­ing shows, we lost money,” Hawkins said. “We’d write a check for $300,000 or $400,000 with­out hav­ing a cor­po­rate spon­sor to un­der­write it, and then we wouldn’t make enough from ad­mis­sions to break even.”

In con­trast, the bud­get for the Bear­den ex­hibit — Mary­land Col­lects’ se­cond in­stall­ment — barely busted five fig­ures.

Of ne­ces­sity, these shows lack some tra­di­tional bells and whis­tles. For in­stance, the Bear­den show isn’t ac­com­pa­nied by a cat­a­log — a costly, la­bor-in­ten­sive pub­li­ca­tion geared more to­ward art his­to­ri­ans than the gen­eral pub­lic.

But “Ro­mare Bear­den: Vi­sion­ary Artist” isn’t merely a ran­dom group­ing of art­works. The ex­hi­bi­tion presents a clear and wellar­tic­u­lated point of view.

The man seem­ingly never did the same thing twice. But what­ever he turned his hand to, he did ex­cep­tion­ally well. The can­vases range from Cu­bism-in­spired ab­strac­tion to so­cial re­al­ism to epic themes in­spired by the Bible and Greek mythol­ogy.

Nor were Bear­den’s gifts lim­ited to the vis­ual arts. When he wasn’t cre­at­ing col­lages, he was writ­ing songs. One 1954 tune —com­posed with Larry Dou­glas and Fred Nor­man — is the jazz clas­sic, “Seabreeze.”

Though he wasn’t born here, Bear­den spent time in Bal­ti­more. He was the Bal­ti­more Afro-Amer­i­can News­pa­per’s car­toon­ist dur­ing 1935-37 and also de­signed the huge Vene­tian glass mu­ral in the Up­ton/ Av­enue Mar­ket Metro Sta­tion.

What kind of a mind can pull off all of that?

It seems fit­ting that the works of an artist who ex­per­i­mented as in­ces­santly as Bear­den did are be­ing show­cased by a mu­seum that’s rein­vent­ing it­self.

“We have amassed an amaz­ing ex­hibit,” Draper said.

“Many of these pieces haven’t been shown in pub­lic be­fore or have been shown in­fre­quently. Once this ex­hibit closes, these art­works will re­turn to the in­di­vid­ual donors. You’ll never see this show any­where else. If you want to see it, you have to see it here.”

Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter Brit­tany Britto con­tributed to this ar­ti­cle. mm­c­[email protected]­sun.com twit­ter.com/mcm­c­cauley

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