Reality Check: There’s No Such Thing as Museum Elves

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

I’ve written before about the spectrum of feedback from the public regarding FWMoA that ranges from inspirational praise to ill-informed, sometimes nasty, criticism. Thanks to today’s insta-culture, giving and consuming feedback is as fast as your broadband, and, unfortunately, my morning routine includes playing whack-a-mole with the FWMoA comments, check-ins, and Google reviews that pop up overnight.

The bright side of these digital appraisals is that most leave my memory as soon as I read them—unless something truly egregious pops up, which is rare, thankfully. If you really want to grab my attention because of a bone you want to pick with FWMoA, pick up the phone! I’ll remember you for years.

And so it is with a call I fielded about 5 years ago from a woman who had visited with a friend from out of town. She was livid over the fact that 3 of our 8 galleries were closed as we were in the midst of installing the next exhibition for those 3 galleries. I explained that this was standard operation, but I admit that I wasn’t prepared to apologize for something that all museums do, and something we at FWMoA do every few weeks. I wasn’t unsympathetic, but one can only go so far in apologizing for reality.

She reminded me that her long trip from Columbia City was worthless and that her visit should have been free. Fine. But what she said next baffled me. “Other museums, bigger and better than yours, find ways to change their exhibitions overnight.” Knowing she was probably mistaken or maybe had just watched Night at the Museum, I offered a final awkward apology and ended the phone call.

Pictured below: Galleries 5-7 on Day 2 of installation week.

What I should have explained is that in 2010, FWMoA renovated to add 10,000 square feet of gallery space to get closer to one’s idealized version of a bigger, better museum. Before this renovation, the museum showed its exhibitions in one very large gallery that could only be broken up into smaller, separate exhibition spaces with mobile walls. It was like a ballroom for art. But in 1984, when this was designed and erected, that ballroom for art was a big deal for Fort Wayne and a visionary step for the people who raised the money for this city’s first professional art museum.

Though small, the 1984 museum was constructed to the highest possible museum standards and laid the foundation for decades of world class exhibitions. Alice Neel, Dale Chihuly, Georgia O’Keeffe—all those artists were exhibited at FWMoA before 2000. Still, FWMoA of that time would have devastated my caller, if she had come expecting a sprawling building.

The 2010 renovation was another visionary step, but a modest $7.5 million investment when you consider the scale of other high profile museum expansions, many that are in the tens of millions of dollars. But we didn’t renovate just to impress people with more space. We renovated to show more art to more people, we just only added as much new building as we could affordably manage in the long run.

The ballroom I mentioned was therefore redesigned into 4 individual gallery spaces, and the square feet we added created 3 more galleries. Instead of building directly onto existing outside walls, we set the addition away from the original building to create a “hallway” between the old and new galleries, adding another option for art display. With this new configuration, we had the opportunity to show 8 different exhibitions at once.

From left to right: Brian Williamson, Technical Director; Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives; and Michael Breuning, Curatorial Intern install our newest glass acquisition Taking Off by Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova while Charles Shepard, President and CEO directs. Photo by Amy Schreiber.

We opened this newly configured museum in March of 2010 with an impressive exhibition of the work of the famous American family of artists, the Wyeths. Across the hall in the new wing, a respectable but abridged survey of American art, colonial to contemporary, mimicked the chronologically ordered and encyclopedic collection displays many of us have enjoyed in major American museums. We’d never before been able to show this much of our collection at one time, and we were proud to do it. Now, we had a wing of changing, traveling exhibitions and a wing for a permanent collection display that anchored our museum in the deep harbor of American art.

Though we opened the new museum to much fanfare, and for a few years enjoyed a steadily rising tide of visitors, we began to sense that the total square footage of our museum did not permit almost half of it to be devoted to a collection that, though lovely, valuable, and growing, didn’t match those of the “bigger, better” museums of our critics. Feedback from visitors began to sound patronizing and was laced with subtle, mild disappointment.

We had also inadvertently shot ourselves in the foot by devoting half of our exhibition space to something we hadn’t planned to change: we did not have the flexibility to use this brand new, prime exhibition space in ways that would attract more diverse visitors. Sure, our permanent collection display was really good looking, thoughtful, and gave Fort Wayne access to this cultural treasure trove, but it may not have been large enough to justify multiple, contemplative visits from people who enjoy the same in Indianapolis, Chicago, or Detroit.

In 2013, we had the opportunity to show the work of Dale Chihuly and other masters of contemporary studio glass, and this show’s ideal galleries were in the new wing. Knowing how gorgeous and moving this exhibition could be in that space, coupled with the general ho-hum tone of some of our visitor feedback, we made the bold move to put away our prized possessions to make room for this glass exhibition that has added much inspiration and enjoyment to the lives of our audiences.

The 3 galleries in the new wing would not go back to that ongoing, traditional permanent collection display. We now change 7 galleries every 6-12 weeks, producing 20-25 different exhibitions each year, which beats the museums in Chattanooga, Grand Rapids, Toledo, and Des Moines by a long shot. We do this to give you and all our visitors a glimpse of the vast, diverse, and ever changing world of American and related art through as many examples as possible.

If the friendly woman who had called me 5 years ago had stayed on the line this long, I would have finally explained that this frequent gallery changeover requires the careful skill of people (not the invisible, overnight magic of museum elves) who need to close a gallery for a period of time to flip an installation. For some exhibitions, it’s a miracle this can be done in 5 business days, and I’ve yet to find it necessary to work ‘round the clock so we never have a down time.

Though visitorship and membership has grown because of this frequent gallery changeover, and our reputation as a dynamic museum that shows a lot of different art at once has spread throughout the country, I lament the loss of a traditional collection survey. I hope that one day the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will be in a position to devote a substantial amount of gallery space to some version of a serious, chronological, and complete permanent collection display. Further, our decision to forego a collection survey may rightly stir up some sadness and disappointment in museum lovers, purists or not. I’m with you.

But look a little closer: in 2019, you’ll see 5 exhibitions drawn entirely from the collection, including a new acquisitions show opening April 13. The Print and Drawing Study Center is at your disposal for private viewings of unframed works on paper from the collection. Six of our largest indoor sculptures and much of our contemporary glass is on display all the time, and who could deny that the 30+ years of perpetual, 24-hour display of monumental outdoor sculptures Crossings, Quake, and Helmholtz (with just a short hiatus) is a testament to this museum’s commitment to displaying collections. And thanks to a $1 million gift last year from the late June E. Enoch, one of those 1980s visionaries, we’ll be able to continue on this journey to buying, preserving, and showing as much American art as possible—in ways that benefit as many people as possible.

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