When she arrives she appears in a color-coordinated outfit: red and black cardigan sweater over a black blouse with tailored black slacks and ox-blood leather shoes. It's the sort of casual business attire, accented with understated jewelry that signals style and good taste. The ensemble is of a kind not typically associated with Value City and at the same time doesn't conjure up a reference to Talbot's. She finds a middle ground, more like a Bloomingdale's girl, sophisticated, comfortable and classic.
When she speaks it can be in the languages of the "suits" or of the "streets." Her ability to barter is widely acknowledged and respected across the board. She is valued and sought after for her talents as an appraiser, not simply in judging a piece’s place in the art continuum, which she routinely does in curating Artlink’s many shows, but in assigning a work’s worth for an estate sale. That ability, to flutter back and forth between business and culture, between banker and artist, to live in both worlds at the same time, is the hallmark of Betty Fishman, the almost-octogenarian Executive Director of Artlink, one of the few not-for-profit art galleries in Indiana not associated with a university, housed since 1991 at 437 East Berry Street.
Driven by a passion for the arts (not only the visual spectrum - she indulges in them all: cinema, theater, dance and music, even opera), she derives a source of energy most younger people struggle to find. If she is guilty of being myopic or headstrong in one area it has to be in championing local artists.
"I've for many years visited New York City, and when I'm there I'm just going from gallery to museum to gallery," Fishman said. "Obviously, I make mental comparisons with what I see there versus what I know is being produced at home. There is an enormous amount of solid work being made by local artists that isn't being offered up to the general public through conventional means. Artlink provides that vehicle."
Fishman conceded time for this interview between a visit to her bank and an Artlink financial committee meeting in the midst of a typical, tightly scheduled day-timer day. Quick to speak of the quality of the current exhibition, “Key Strokes,” she shortly turns to plans for the upcoming regional printmaker’s show which opens in May (“It is undoubtedly one of the best anywhere.”) and then rattles off the 20 artists who are to take part in what she hopes is a blockbuster mixed-media exhibition tentatively titled 'Growing Up in Indiana' which is slated for the fall of 2005.
From whence cometh her knowledge and wherewithal to accomplish her revered place in the local scene? Fishman can only speculate.
“I read lots, looked and sometimes even studied,” she explained. “I grew up in an environment that was nurturing. My grandmother crocheted, made hook rugs, and my mother read. I was exposed to books and ideas. I was obviously conditioned that way, and I've just continued along that path. Just being around and involved for so long may also have helped.”
After high school in Hicksville (an ironically named alma mater), Fishman pursued art and education at both Ohio State and Miami University then returned to pick up her Master's at Saint Francis from where she was later awarded an honorary Doctorate. In the midst of all that Fishman also studied at the old Fort Wayne Art Institute, the Penland School of Arts in North Carolina and the Arrowmont School in Tennessee.
As an artist Fishman has worked in numerous media. Known mostly as a printmaker, she has at various times also expressed herself in drawing, painting, cyanoprinting and jewelry. "I somehow always seem to lose interest in a particular medium once I play with it. I then just move along to something new, another interest. Collage is probably my favorite form." Her works have been the focus at a variety of venues throughout the region.
After school and for the next near-quarter-century, Fishman taught at both middle and high school levels in the East Noble County school system ("Believe it or not, I actually preferred the middle-school students.").
A certain pride exudes when she speaks of the successes of some of her former students as well as her own daughters who followed artistic careers in painting and dance and ultimately engendered grandchildren with artistic bents.
Fishman toyed with notions of operating a gallery several years ago when in partnership with a friend, Ellie Golden, she established the Goldfish Gallery, first on an upper floor of the Fishman's women’s apparel store and later in a similar spot in Golden's men's wear outlet both in downtown Fort Wayne. (The Goldfish name would resurface later when it was appropriated by St. Francis as part of its Ian and Mimi Rolland art complex. It currently offers a year-round space for student work and also serves as a laboratory for students in gallery and arts administration.)
But it wasn't until much later that Fishman was to return to the gallery business when she encountered Bruce Linker and his upstart “Artlink” gallery on the second floor of a Broadway building located across the street from the recently vacated 3 Rivers Food Co-op. Eventually the small gallery moved across the street and shared space with the Co-op before moving to its current site.
When Fishman took charge there wasn’t enough money to cover payroll, but now that’s not a problem even with a largely expanded mission and more
That’s not to say the facility operates problem free.
"These are tough times for the arts," explained Fishman. "We're experiencing cuts like other non-profits. We learned recently we’ll have a shortfall from our Arts United allocation. In addition, some of our corporate and foundation sponsors have told us they’re holding off their commitments until later in the year which doesn't help in our planning."
"It makes the picture for the coming year a question mark. Any classes or projects that don't pay for themselves we can't do. We may also have to cut back on shipping costs for art exhibits and honorariums for artists and exhibit judges. Well pull our horns in and see how the rest of the year goes," Fishman recently told another writer.
In spite of her successes at the helm of Artlink, Fishman's name is also conjured up for her role as President of the former Fort Wayne Art School in the 1960s, when she helped empower that institute to a height some consider as the “golden era” of Fort Wayne art education and
Local artist Don Kruse along with the late painter/professor Noel Dusenchon and Russell Oettle, painter/teacher/department head (who was once married to Fishman) formed a vanguard of art enterprise and were seen as the “Three Musketeers.”
“Those were exciting times when it seemed the arts and people were flourishing,” recalled Kruse recently. “Russell gave us free rein to teach and explore, and Betty somehow found the money to provide us with the tools and the environment to allow for lots of creativity.”
“She wasn't the “society lady” rubbing elbows with the art crowd. She understood the creative process and was really good (and remains so) at recognizing what was good and honest in people as well as their artwork. There are some great stories and some great art that came out of that period. She deserves credit for helping engender that.”
Fishman has received a number of honors and awards from her honorary doctorate from St. Francis, to her “Betty Fishman Day” in Fort Wayne and was recognized for her contributions to arts and culture with a Sagamore of the Wabash distinction from the governor’s office. You get the impression however that it is her own sense of pride and accomplishment that means the most to her.
"I often wonder what it would be like to choose a few pieces, somehow store them away, then come back in 50 years or so and judge their relevance," Fishman pondered before darting off to her financial committee meeting.
"I happen to know some of the pieces Fishman has in her home: George McCullough, Tom Keesee, Russell Oettle, Norman Bradley and Don Kruse. It is a group that has certainly held up well and adds credence to her status as taste maker. I also know some of the artists on her short list, her picks to click as it were. If you’d like to know more just ask her, she’s not shy about sharing her views, never has been.