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In his years as president of Arts United, Jim Sparrow made an indelible mark on the arts culture of Fort Wayne as well as the downtown landscape. Securing the building that is now the Auer Center for Arts & Culture on East Main, which sits directly across from the Arts United Center and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, was his attempt at realizing a longstanding plan, one that would create an arts campus in the heart of the city. His departure last September for a similar position in North Carolina left a void, especially coming as his other plan – to build a black box theatre into the Auer Center – was finally coming to fruition. With much to do to help support the arts organizations in the area, the primary mission of Arts United, a search committee was quickly formed to begin looking for candidates to take over the job of president.
One member of that team was Susan Mendenhall, director of resource development for Arts United whose job was to both oversee fundraising efforts and to distribute grants to organizations. Little did she know that the search for Sparrow’s replacement was going to change her career.
“From the time Jim resigned in August until the early part of January, we looked at 45 candidates,” she says. “They were high-quality candidates, but they weren’t quite the right fit. One night I had to leave the meeting to get home to my daughter, and I guess they had a discussion and said, ‘We might have a candidate right in front of us.’ They called me at home at 9:30 that night and asked if I would be interested in applying for the job myself. It really surprised me.”
At the same press conference that heralded the opening of the ArtsLab on January 17, Mendenhall was announced as the new president of Arts United, giving the position a new and young voice as it forges ahead with its ambitious plans to help Fort Wayne’s growing arts community.
Mendenhall, already well acquainted with the staff and board of directors for Arts United, hit the ground running on January 20. It’s nothing new for her, however, since she’s already seen many changes since her arrival in 2010.
“When I started, we still had our offices in the Canal House, and then we moved into the offices at the Arts United Center, but already had plans to acquire the current Auer Center. In fact, I was brought in to write the grant for the capital initiative that made it possible for us to acquire this building.”
The Auer Center was soon to become home to Artlink, Fort Wayne Ballet, FAME, Fort Wayne Trails and Pembroke Bakery, providing an important hub for an already busy downtown arts campus. The addition of the ArtsLab, which has a number of configurations for different uses, will provide another performances option for not only the resident organizations of the Auer Center, but also for other Arts United partners, including Youtheatre, the Civic Theatre, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Dance Collective. But more plans for growth are in the offing, Mendenhall says.
“We’re currently at work on eight different initiatives, including public art and a public market. Also, Artlink is launching a program called Co-Starters, which is a creative incubator project which will help emerging artists learn more about managing small businesses. We’re also looking toward adding a culinary institute, and Jason Smith from Club Soda is looking for a location for that while we look for seed funding. We continue to look for pathways for success because all of this wonderful art is bubbling to the surface, and we need to make sure we’re all working in the same direction.”
Originally from Indianapolis, Mendenhall attended Indiana University, earning her undergraduate degree in non-profit management and her master’s in philanthropic studies. Her first stint in Fort Wayne came when she took a job at the Philharmonic before eventually heading to work for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Eventually she and her husband spent a year living in Colombia, South America where his family had a business. But they decided they missed the Fort Wayne area and returned here in 2010 when Mendenhall joined the staff of Arts United. She’s happy to use her degrees to help grow the local arts community.
“I don’t have an artistic background,” she admits. “I played violin in high school, but that’s it. What makes me happy is to support those who are working artists because it makes our community more vibrant. When we had the press conference to open the ArtsLab, Mayor Henry was talking about a CEO who had been trying to decide whether to move his business to Fort Wayne. Unbeknownst to Mayor Henry, this man had sent some of his employees here to see if this was a place where they would like to move. And when they returned, they told him that they loved Fort Wayne, especially the arts and cultural aspect. They especially loved the theatres and the museums. So improving the arts culture is an important part of economic development because a vibrant arts community leads to a higher quality of life for all of us on a lot of fronts.”
Jumping into the leadership role as Arts United launches its annual fund drive makes for a busy time for Mendenhall, but when asked what part of her new position is most gratifying, she says it’s the people and artists she gets to work with everyday to make Fort Wayne a special place for all of us to call home.
“I love being able to work for and around so many amazingly talented people. Not only do we have a great staff and a great board, but our arts partners are doing some really incredible things. Deb Washler at Artlink is bringing Co-Starters to Fort Wayne, Karen Gibbons-Brown has worked with the University of Saint Francis to develop a degree in dance in partnership with Fort Wayne Ballet, Charles Shepherd is bringing the Fort Wayne Museum of Art out to the forefront. It’s gratifying to me that Arts United can help provide the infrastructure and operational support that they need to do all they do for Fort Wayne.”