Margaret Ann Keegan: Public Servant & Champion of the Arts

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Margaret Ann Keegan’s last Rites on Tuesday, The Fort Wayne News Sentinel, January 31, 1966.

Every year, Arts United presents the Margaret Ann Keegan Award (for Arts Education) “to recognize an individual who has made a significant contribution to furthering arts education in northeast Indiana. This award is intended to encourage further development of the arts education programs, to increase collaborative efforts between educators and arts organizations, and to increase awareness of the importance of the arts in education” (Arts United website).

But who is this person whom the Arts United Center has named an award after? Margaret Ann Keegan, whose importance to the arts in Fort Wayne is enduring and far-reaching, was a key member of the exploratory committee formed in the early 1950s that developed the Fine Arts Foundation (FAF), now Arts United. Its mission was to promote the arts in the community and to house and raise funds for its member organizations which were the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum, the Civic Theatre, and the Philharmonic. At the time the FAF was only the third organization of its kind in the country.

Born in Fort Wayne, Miss Keegan attended public schools and then earned a degree in psychiatric social work from the University of Michigan. Her employment history includes the Fort Wayne Public Schools Bureau of Tests and Measurements and the Fort Wayne State School. After completing her education, she immediately began her life-long service to her community. Her efforts supported the Urban League, Wheatley Social Center, Bedside School for Crippled Children, Children’s Theater, Johnny Appleseed School, Workers for the Blind, Family and Children’s Agency, Philharmonic Women’s Committee, the College Club (forerunner of the American Association of University Women), and the Friends of Fine Arts; and she founded the Christmas Bureau. These are only a small portion of the organizations she helped.

In 1964, while honoring Miss Keegan  for her service to the Child Guidance Center, Dr. Robert Greenlee said, 

“We are proud to be witness to the fact that one person can dream and do and fulfill; that one private citizen can improve a whole community; that one individual can make the world a better place for being in it.”

–Dr. Robert Greenlee

One of Miss Keegan’s greatest gifts to the citizens of Fort Wayne was the Fine Arts Festival. The first Fine Arts Festival was held on May 17, 1958 in Franke Park, where it continued until 1975. In its 17 years in the park, it featured exhibits of art and architecture, ballet, music and theatre performances, film, demonstrations, lectures and children’s events. It even featured full stage opera productions of Don Pasquale and Madame Butterfly!

Fine Arts Festival attendees viewing art, circa 1960, Allen County Public Library Image.

These events were held in tents, truck trailers, open stages, and the park’s pavilion and theatre. Anita Cast’s detailed History of the Arts in Fort Wayne, Indiana includes this comment from a festival chair, Betty Fishman,

“The budget was nil; but the important thing was the programming which was innovative and superior.  The undertakings were immense considering the facilities . . .  I remember seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Patio Door hung on a fence in the dust and the wind.”

–Betty Fishman

Dick Gibeau, first executive director of the FAF said,

“Without Margaret Ann Keegan, the festival would never have started. Keegan was the originator and general chairman of the first festival. She got so many people involved; people couldn’t say no to her; and she had so many contacts. She could be a tough boss. We always met in her kitchen. She was always cooking; she really laid it out. I remember sitting on a kitchen stool in her home when she took me to task.”

–Dick Gibeau

This festival, dreamed up by Miss Keegan, attracted up to 100,000 visitors who came to enjoy, participate in and gain exposure to the array of arts available in Fort Wayne.  In the late 1980s the FORTE Festival continued the tradition, and today, Arts United hosts Taste of the Arts, “a free daylong festival to support and promote arts and culture activities year-round.”

Miss Helen Rapp and Miss Margaret Ann Keegan, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 19, 1953.

Shortly before her passing at age 63, Margaret Ann Keegan was described as, “truly the heart, the conscience and the spirit of Fort Wayne.” This tribute was given by the Junior League to Miss Keegan who had served the organization for 25 years from the time of its founding in the city.

It’s not surprising that Margaret Ann gave so much of herself to her community.  She was cut from the same cloth as her grandfather, Edward Franklin Yarnelle (1850-1938), a tireless and dedicated business leader and philanthropist who left his mark on our parks, charities, arts, businesses, banks, and an array of service organizations. Like her grandfather, she was a pillar of the First Presbyterian Church, even providing lodging in her home at 1420 Swinney Court to interns of the church. Several of these clergymen returned to Fort Wayne to serve as her pallbearers when she was laid to rest at Lindenwood Cemetery. Even though she had founded, led, or supported countless worthy organizations in her life, preferred memorials were gifts to the Fine Arts Foundation.

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