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When Deb Washler became the executive director of Artlink nine years ago, she was stepping into some pretty big shoes. Her predecessor, Betty Fishman, was not only the face of the gallery but a legend in the area’s arts community. But Fishman spent three month working with Washler, helping to ease the transition and allowing the new director time to benefit from Fishman’s knowledge. Almost a decade later, Washler has clearly made the job her own. With remarkable growth, a new location and a wide range of new opportunities for local artists, Artlink has become a force in the Fort Wayne arts scene, and several new programs promise to make it a leader in the community, thanks in no small part to Washler’s vision.
When she was earning her degree in fine and commercial art at the University of Saint Francis, Washler had her eye on both pursuing art and possibly teaching. Four years in commercial photography led her to think more about teaching and whether or not she wanted to pursue a graduate degree to make that happen.
“I was considering it, and then someone at Saint Francis took a sabbatical, and I filled in for a year and was able to get some experience. I realized I wasn’t as excited about it as I should be, not excited enough to go into debt for grad school. At that point I kind of fell into a job at Arts United and was introduced to the world of arts administration. Then I worked at Fort Wayne Ballet before taking this job at Artlink.”
She credits Fishman with her handling of the transitional time after her hiring.
“Betty has a classy way of handling everything,” says Washler. “She spent those three months working with me. I was the executive director, and she was executive director emeritus. I had been a member of Artlink, so I knew her, and she helped me get to know the members and the board.”
Even in those early days, Washler was already formulating some of the ideas which are just now really coming to fruition with the Arts Incubator, a set of programs which recently launched in Fort Wayne through the supervision of Artlink and aimed at helping local artists establish themselves.
“I had run across a book on incubators when they were really just getting started. I wanted to try to do something like that, but the reality was that where we were in our old space, it just wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So I focused instead on our exhibits. That space had only one gallery, so I could only do one at a time.”
The opportunity to leave their smaller gallery came in 2011 when Arts United purchased the building now called the Auer Center for Arts & Culture, located on Main Street. The new home not only provided additional gallery space for multiple exhibits, but it featured classrooms for workshops and other educational opportunities as well.
“We were so limited in what we could offer and how much we could offer before, and now we can bring in more art, feature more artists and more mediums. It took awhile to get used to that much space and how to program it. We also have two classrooms now so that we can teach classes and workshops. And that opened the door to establishing the Arts Incubator.”
The incubator provides three resources: a Co.Starters program, Arts Dialogues and a website which provides resources for artists. The first Co.Starters program, a nine-week workshop which helps entrepreneurs formulate and realize their business ideas, begins in March, and Washler says she first learned of the program through former Arts United president Jim Sparrow.
“Jim had gone to Cincinnati where they have the program which is a licensed program through Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it originated. After he had discovered it, he came to talk to me about it. The purpose is creating an environment where a creative individual – and it’s not limited to visual artists – can find help in molding their businesses. They can learn from business leaders how to take their idea, look at what might be missing or what things they need, and then put that plan into action. When they come out after nine weeks, they have a better understanding of what they have to do and how to find the seed money to make it happen.
“But we also have our Arts Dialogues for those who might not be ready for something like that yet. We’ll have a series of topics, like how to set up an Etsy shop, which can help artists utilize things like that. The dialogues are just a drop-in thing, and there will be different topics along the way.”
Washler began the process of implementing the Arts Incubator last summer, and in the months and years ahead the possibilities are exciting. She says the chance to bring together various resources in one place and provide it to the community will benefit not only artists and art lovers but the community as a whole.
“As we continue growing the Arts Incubator and the community begins to utilize it, we’ll be able to see what it can do and what other needs are. We want to give it as much structure as we can so that we see how we can grow this program. Hopefully two or three years from now we’ll see five storefronts that have come of this program.”
While her career may have taken a different path than she had initially envisioned, Washler – and Artlink – have flourished in the last nine years, making Artlink a unique presence in Fort Wayne. She ultimately decided against teaching, but she has contributed as many artists to the community as many who do pursue education. And that has been her greatest reward.
“The best part of my job is watching artists grow. I look back on some of the artists who had just begun showing with us when I first started this job, and I look at what they’re doing now and see how much they’ve improved over the years. That’s really exciting, and it’s why I do what I do.”