Reality Check: Where’s Our Degas?

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

One of my guilty pleasures is poring over online reviews, whether it’s with my sister via text message screen shots, or with anyone near my office who I can pull down with me into the rabbit hole of Internet opinion. The shots fired at local restaurants are especially outrageous and tiresomely detailed—dinner rolls didn’t arrive on time, wait staff didn’t offer free cookies, and so on. Some of the activist types are even calling for “transparency” in making sure the online menu matches the menu at the restaurant.

I’m amused and shocked at the small-mindedness of some of these reviews. We live in a country with countless amenities and comforts, and most of us can afford a tasty meal out on a regular basis. What many give one star on social media might be extravagant living in the poorest places. My sister, Emily, sums it up for us: “Go do something for mankind. No one needs an online review of McDonald’s.”

In my role at FWMoA, I’m lucky enough to be inextricably linked to all our social media accounts, so every little thing people say about us is conveniently delivered to my inbox. Most reviews are positive, accurate, and heartwarming. Some stretch the truth, and others inspire my blog posts. A common set of complaints seem to bubble to the surface of our negative reviews: “It’s not as big as I thought it would be;” “There’s not enough to see;” “There were no famous artists like Degas or Renoir;” “It’s not like Chicago or Los Angeles.”

It’s true that we are not in Chicago or Los Angeles, but we do have a Renoir print in the collection—we just keep it under wraps most of the time. The other assessments are matters of opinion and expectation, and I’ve come to believe that many people measure their experience of any museum by standards like the vast square footage of the Art Institute of Chicago or the dizzying array of objects on view at places like the Met. When we consider the number of museums in the U.S. alone (IMLS estimates there are around 35,000), we realize that these types of museums are few in number, and yet they define the expectations of many.

A portrait of Rodin.
Auguste Renoir, French, 1841-1919. Portrait of Rodin. Lithograph, 1910. Gift of Caroline R. Fairbank Memorial Collection, 1941.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Closer to home (within about 100 miles of Fort Wayne), there are two museums whose histories can illustrate why museums have what they have. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) at Newfields is a wondrous blend of gardens, architecture, collections, fresh exhibitions, and innovative interpretation. The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) offers a similarly exciting experience, but they boast a glass pavilion separate from the museum proper which houses a world-class hot shop and an impressive glass collection. Both museum collections of tens of thousands of objects happen to include work by Degas and Renoir, and both emit the aura of a traditional, sprawling museum experience. They are marvelous museums, and I visit them as often as I can.

How did they get what they have? Why do they have old master paintings, and FWMoA doesn’t? Where did they get their millions of dollars for decades of capital expansion and robust endowment funds? We need to look at the origins of both museums and the important investments made by their founders to answer these questions.

In Toledo, the Libbey family is given the most credit for the TMA of today. In 1888, Edward Drummond Libbey moved his father William’s glass company from East Cambridge, Massachusetts to Toledo to take advantage of the area’s abundant natural gas, naturally occurring high-silica sand, and the city’s proximity to shipping and rail lines. The business flourished, impacting the city so much that it became known as “The Glass City.” In 1901, Edward and his wife Florence established the Toledo Museum of Art with their personal fortune. Many of the most renowned works in the TMA collection have been purchased with Libbey funds, and their gift in large part sustains the TMA today. In 2017, the TMA’s invested funds topped $235 million.

In Indianapolis, its art museum’s success is not so easily pinned to one benefactor, although illustrious families like Lilly, Efroymson, Ball, and Herron played significant roles in the museum’s impressive collections and resources. In 1895, John Herron committed to a gift of $225,000 to establish a permanent art gallery and school—about $5 million in today’s dollars. Impressively, the IMA is home to the largest collection of work by JMW Turner outside Great Britain, thanks to a gift in 1979 by Indianapolis attorney Kurt F. Pantzer. Throughout the 20th century, major building expansions and more important gifts of art contributed to the Indianapolis Museum of Art becoming one of today’s leaders in the museum field.

The beginnings of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art are humble by contrast. We were just getting started with incorporation in 1921, and Wayne Knitting Mills founder Theodore Thieme’s gift of $10,000 and his collection of Indiana Impressionist paintings the same year paved the way to real museum status. Today, our invested funds hover around $6 million, the interest of which provides much needed operating support year after year. While one could argue that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Theodore Thieme, the scale of his gift pales in comparison to those of Libbey and Herron to their respective museums.

Certainly, Fort Wayne has enjoyed robust industry throughout the 20th century, but for reasons that we don’t fully understand, local collectors never quite amassed the great works of other Midwestern titans. Gifts of cash, while generous, have allowed us to thrive but have not made it possible for us to own the work of “big name” artists that wow visitors. We all know how out of reach those works of art are today for many institutions—just look at how much Old Master works fetch at today’s auctions.

Consider this blog my response to those online reviewers lamenting our square feet or missing Degas. Furthermore, I encourage you to focus on the attributes that make us leaders in the field, such as 25 unique exhibitions each year, the world’s largest collections of the work of ‘80s abstractionists Steven Sorman and David Shapiro, and a Print and Drawing Study Center that makes works on paper by the likes of Picasso, Pollock, Hopper, and Catlett available for your personal viewing if you just let us know. In 50 years, I can only hope that the FWMoA and its growing collection knocks the socks off the next generation of visitors. And if you were wondering how you might use the extra $5 million you have on your hands, I have a few ideas.

3 Replies to “Reality Check: Where’s Our Degas?”

  1. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is a gem and your article explaines clearly what its value is for the region and its visitors. With all the fresh and diverse offering of exhibitions, it has something to offer to everyone. Due to its creative management and dedicated staff, this museum will continue to grow. Hopefully its significance will be noticed and bring in more financial support to expand its collection. The biggest flaw in any museum’s pr is to proudly boast a big name artist, showing a less than mediocre work of art. Who needs a Renoir when there is so much more affordable excellent art out there?

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