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‘Bringing value to town’

December 29th, 2016

City's museum adding to permanent collection, reputation

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Museum curators aspire to assemble collections that are educational and entertaining.

Charles Shepard is going one better by adding a third “E” to his museum’s goals: Economic development.

The chief curator of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art is consciously raising the city’s national profile as he adds hundreds of pieces to the museum’s permanent collection.

“We’re bringing value to town,” Shepard said about his new Special Collection and Archives Initiative. His peers in the art world haven’t heard of anything similar. “They’ve said, ‘Charles, this is brilliantly kooky – or kookily brilliant.’ ”

As midsized cities increasingly compete for business investment, their leaders are looking for ways to stand out.

Fort Wayne’s economic development efforts in recent years have focused on creating a vibrant downtown. Restaurants, retail and residential spaces are part of that mix. So, too, are the arts, which contribute billions to the national economy annually.

Although the art museum’s initiative isn’t part of formal economic development plans, John Urbahns endorses the effort.

“Increasing things like the quality and number of exhibits at the museum increases our quality of place,” said Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s executive vice president of economic development. The nonprofit organization is the contact for businesses considering locations in Fort Wayne and Allen County.

Few cities Fort Wayne’s size have a philharmonic orchestra, ballet troupe or historic venue to rival the Embassy Theatre, Urbahns said. Other assets that bring national attention to the city, he said, include the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center and Parkview Field.

“I’m sure there’s overlap, but they each appeal to different crowds in different ways,” Urbahns said. “The more offerings we have, the better we’re positioned to attract” visitors, residents and employers.

Preserving pieces

The strategy is new, but Fort Wayne’s art museum isn’t the first to seek national attention. Its challenge is that it hasn’t had wealthy patrons to pave the way.

Many prominent art museums have assembled first-rate collections from private ones donated by families who made business fortunes, including the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Gettys and Guggenheims.

At one time, Shepard said, it was considered a moral imperative for society’s elite to build their communities’ cultural assets.

The president and CEO has instead relied on a creative approach to expanding his museum’s collection. Instead of making a pitch to collectors seeking donated artwork, he contacts artists directly.

It’s a strategy he launched while chatting with Steven Sorman, a printmaker, about mutual acquaintances they’d known in the 1980s art world.

They lamented the deaths – and virtual disappearance – of gifted artists who never achieved the public recognition lavished on peers such as Andy Warhol or Andrew Wyeth.

Shepard asked Sorman whether anyone was preserving pieces that represent his body of work. If not, he said, Fort Wayne’s art museum would be honored to preserve the Minnesota artist’s legacy.

“I sincerely thought somebody should be remembering him. And I thought: Why not us? Why not Fort Wayne?” Shepard said.

“He said, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought like that before,’ ” Shepard recalled, adding that the artist called back in a mere three days to accept the offer.

But Sorman was overwhelmed by the task of getting his work here.

Shepard took charge, hired a local truck and crew and sent them to catalog, wrap and transport 230 prints and paintings.

Just the beginning

Shepard followed the same strategy to solicit donations of about 100 prints each from artists Robert Kipniss and Katja Oxman. He persuaded David Shapiro’s widow to give the museum more than 200 paintings and more than 500 prints, a $6.2 million gift that was announced in November.

“(Kipniss) realized he had no one looking after his artistic reputation,” Shepard said.

Each of the New York artist’s 110 prints is valued at between $3,000 and $18,000. Shepard estimated his efforts over the past 24 months have added $10 million in value to the local art museum’s permanent collection, which has grown from about 1,500 ­pieces to more than 6,000.

Amanda Martin, the museum’s vice president and chief operating officer, said donations on that scale are uncommon.

“Not a lot of museums have the ability to accept such a large volume of work. That doesn’t mean it was easy for us, either,” she said, citing staff hours spent carefully cataloging and storing hundreds of prints and paintings.

Kaitlin Binkley said mishandling the donated artwork would prove disastrous.

“It would tarnish our growing reputation as a reputable place to leave your archive,” she said.

The museum has also stepped up insurance coverage to keep pace with the expanding collection.

Its premiums have doubled over the last 21/2 years to about $8,000 a year because of all the additional artwork, Shepard said. It could be worse, he added, but the museum has a history of making few claims and taking strong security measures. Both factors allow the nonprofit to quality for discounts.

The increased cost isn’t insignificant for the museum’s $1.8 million annual operating budget. Based on the museum’s size, an ideal annual budget would be in the $2.2 million to $2.5 million range, Shepard said. He based the estimate on the number and quality of exhibits his museum provides annually.

Other expenses incurred by accepting large artwork donations include transporting the art and flying in the artists to personally see how the works are being cared for. During those visits, the artists – who have no previous ties to the city – also get a taste of Fort Wayne.

“Everyone who’s come has said, ‘Wow, this is a great city and great food,’ ” Shepard said. “This isn’t really so much an art story as it is an investment in our city.”

Attracting the artists to the Summit City is just the beginning of potential benefits.

Shepard expects Fort Wayne’s star to shine brighter in the art world as artists share stories with friends about the white-glove treatment received. Admirers of those artists could also be drawn here to study the works.

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s curator has every reason to believe his institution will surpass visitors’ expectations if he can just get them here.

In 2008, the museum won accreditation by surpassing strict requirements established by the American Alliance of Museums. The alliance develops standards and best practices for museums of all kinds, including zoos and historical sites. 

The accreditation process involves a self-study and peer review that takes eight to 16 months and must be repeated every 10 years.

In a section at the end of the formal comments, reviewers are asked to suggest areas for improvement.

“I was very proud that there were no remarks in that section whatsoever,” Shepard said.

Reviewers Peter Morrin and Charles Butler noted the art museum’s innovative education programs that include taking art into schools with a gallery on wheels, an American stories series on public TV and public radio, and an art on espresso series where staff gives 30-minute art talks in local coffeehouses.

Well-received community outreach has included approaching the local Mexican-American community, a relationship that led to the museum’s annual Day of the Dead celebration or Dia de los Muertos.

New revenue

The American Alliance of Museums describes museums as economic engines – and provides several statistics on its website to back up the claim.

More than 400,000 Americans are employed by museums, which directly contribute $21 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the alliance.

In 2012, Businessweek.com used the density of museums as one of its metrics when ranking America’s Best Cities. So-called leisure amenities were given more weight than education, crime and air quality.

Shepard can’t be content with contributing to the local economy. He also has to make sure the art museum’s budget is thriving. To do that, Shepard wants to leverage his museum’s rapidly expanding collection to generate a new revenue stream.

Plans call for lending exhibits to museums and other venues for a lower price than what institutions usually pay. It’s possible to undercut the competition, Shepard said, because building shipping crates and providing transportation is more affordable in Indiana than in large inner cities.

There’s another advantage for borrowers, said Tiffany Street, the museum’s special collections and archive curator. A venue might have to deal with 15 or more other museums to gather as many works by one artists as Fort Wayne can provide with one contact, one contract.

As demand grows, the loaned exhibitions will add to Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s growing reputation, the staff believes.

The museum’s curation strategy could also become a recruiting tool for the University of Saint Francis, which offers courses in museum studies, said Martin, the COO.

The university opened a downtown campus this fall.

Economic development officials look for ways to offer exciting opportunities to young professionals.

“In our small way,” Shepard said, “it makes me feel part of the renaissance of Fort Wayne.” 

Categories Quality of Life