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Before his arrival in Fort Wayne in 2003, when he assumed the executive director position at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Charles Shepard had a choice to make about where he wanted to set down roots. Originally from Maine, he finished graduate school intent on becoming an art professor before deciding to broaden that ambition. “I realized I could be a professor, but I could also run a university art museum, which I did at the University of Michigan, University of Maine, Ohio University and Connecticut College, where I specialized in starting a museum or repairing one that was in trouble. But I struggled with the notion of wanting to work more for the community. I was fortunate in that some of those universities allowed me to work with the community, but in a university system, that comes first and the community comes second.”
Determined to make a mark in a community beyond university guidelines, Shepard was sought out by headhunters looking to fill positions in a variety of exciting locations, including New York, Los Angeles, England and Puerto Rico. But another option existed, one in Fort Wayne, and it was that opportunity which spoke to his ambition to build a top notch museum in a community. Why Fort Wayne?
“For me it was an interesting combination of things. It was a new-ish museum, having been built in 1984. The museum dated back 57 years, but the building itself was young for an institution, so there was this almost brand new building downtown, in the heart of the city. And I studied the situation that they had here. At that point they were focused on an audience that was self-identified. In other words, we liked the people who liked us instead of focusing on the people who don’t know you. I wanted to fix that.”
In his 11 years with the museum (Shepard celebrated his anniversary on July 1), he has grown the collection dramatically. While he inherited a museum which had 1,300 objects in its collection after almost six decades, the seventh decade saw 1,800 more items added. Instead of two galleries, a recent expansion now provides nine galleries in addition to more meeting rooms, more storage space and an expanded gift shop. The additional pieces have also allowed Shepard to completely shift the way the museum has been doing business.
“We no longer look to book ‘pre-fab’ shows, preferring instead to tap into our own collection and just borrowing things to add to an exhibit. Before the renovation, we would look through rental exhibit catalogs and bring in shows that were visiting Chicago or Wisconsin. Now we’ve become the one who rents our shows to other museums. Our recent Afro show is now in Seattle. It may take us another two to three years to get the word out that we have exhibits to share. It’s just a light under the basket, but we’ll let that light come out from under the basket.”
Shepard is also proud of the increasing numbers of people who visit the museum and especially touts the geographic and demographic diversity. Upon his arrival he began to target people who lived within a 90-minute drive, tapping into the largeness of the overall northeastern Indiana community and bringing in shows which attract a more racially diverse audience as well. He’s found working within the confines of a city the size of Fort Wayne a refreshing change from other larger metropolitan areas.
“Anybody can get involved and make something happen. You don’t have to be a special person to sit down and talk to the mayor. A lot of cities are structured very differently, and you have to be there for 20, 25 years before you can do anything. The professor in me knew I wanted to go somewhere where people would pay attention. People talk about New York, Los Angeles, Boston and think the people all know about art and theater. But, of course, they don’t. People here don’t try to do that. They aren’t pretentious. It makes it easier to do things.”
Having accomplished a lot in just a decade on the job, you might wonder if Shepard is looking for greener pastures, considering another place to repair and grow a museum. But he says he sees another 10 to 20 years of growth possible for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and has a lot of plans for how to make it even better.
“Right now we have about 3,500 objects, but I’d like to take it to 10,000 to 12,000 in the future. I’d also like to take the museum’s endowment to $10 to $12 million to make the future more secure. I also want to generate a sculpture collection that would bring scholars here to publish about the collection and have shows that feature the sculptures.”
Shepard says the recent series of glass exhibits have brought international audiences to the city. Those visitors not only benefit the museum and help grow its reputation, but it has helped generate good publicity for the city.
“People who come for these exhibits will stay an extra three days just to spend time in the city. They’ll take in a ballgame or enjoy the restaurants, and no one has ever had anything but good to say about those times they spend in Fort Wayne. Plus, we can bring in these artists and show Fort Wayne these influences while returning the favor and showing them our city.”
All of this growth and innovation – in a downtown area which has grown tremendously in his short tenure with the museum – has validated Shepard’s choice of Fort Wayne over cities that might have been higher on a director’s list of possible choices. But Shepard reiterates what he sees as the city’s greatest strength.
“There’s a real can-do environment here. I’m bullish on downtown and bullish on the region. If you say you want to do something, you’re going to be able to do it. Other places have so many obstacles. I grew up in Maine and had someone complain to me that even if you live in Maine for 30 years, you can’t run for city council because people think you’re an out-of-towner. But it’s not like that here.”