Off the Cuff: Brave New World

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Years ago, in 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote his dark novel about a negative Utopia in Brave New World and, in 1984, George Orwell followed suit with his novel, 1984, an equally dark prediction about life on Earth at the end of the 20th century. I read both books as part of my high school and college literature classes, but I never bought into their collective negativity. I was, and still am, an optimist. My concept of a “brave new world” is anything but cynical. I have always believed that people, and institutions, in the future would strive to be sufficiently brave and clever to forge a wonderful new world in which all things could prosper and grow in an organic and healthy way.

A clear example of my perspective harkens back to 2008 when we were planning the Museum’s first major expansion. At the time, we talked breathlessly about our seemingly endless opportunities for the Museum when we reopened with nine new galleries in place of our former three. And to further prepare us for our brave new world, the architects tripled the collection storage space, laid out a sculpture court, and created the Print & Drawing Study Center! As a staff, we dreamed and schemed about how to make the most of our greatly expanded opportunities. Boldly, we predicted growing the collection to twice its current size and including sculpture in addition to our two-dimensional artwork. We talked of presenting a much broader array of diverse and engaging exhibitions, many of them developed by our own curatorial team.

We knew we would face challenges along the way to realizing our dreams, especially financial. Optimism prevailed, however, and our funding sources grew, our audiences and their support grew, and now, twelve years later, we find that our collection has quadrupled and our exhibition calendar features 24 –26 changing exhibitions per year, most of which are curated by our own staff. What this tells us, among other things, is that with good planning, hard work, and our stakeholders’ support, we can accomplish our vision for the Museum’s brave new world. As a result of our leading bold initiatives, our service to the community and region has tripled.

But now, here we all are, in the lingering grasp of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. Our masks are on in every public space as we warily wave to each other from a safe distance, appearing in back-to-back Zoom meetings as we try to keep our work moving forward. What does this mean for our visions and dreams? Is this the last chapter in the Museum’s brave new world narrative?

Absolutely not. This is just another challenge we will need to face, and we are certainly up to the task. To carry on with our service to the community in the pandemic environment we made the necessary adjustments, became even more creative, and kept marching toward the light. We created an array of new virtual programming for all ages, curated new exhibitions from our ever-growing collection to replace exhibits that were cancelled or postponed, and doubled down on our dreams. Throughout the stresses of the spring and summer months, our dreams kept getting fulfilled. Consider this: despite being either hunkered down or only partially open, we still added close to 300 works of art to the collection prior to September. Of these, 237 were gifts to the Museum from as far away as San Francisco, Mexico, North Carolina, and Australia, and valued at approximately $540,000. Seven of these gifts were major pieces of contemporary glass sculpture. On top of that, by late September, we were able to acquire ten more pieces of contemporary glass and close to twenty more contemporary prints by underrepresented artists. To achieve this much growth in the collection and our programming, while still in the throes of the pandemic, is noteworthy. It is inspiring. And it speaks to what we are capable of achieving in the next few years.

It tells us to be bold; bolder than ever before. Our feet are on the welcome mat of a braver, newer world and we need to ring the bell. We need not be shy; we should, by contrast, firmly grasp the latch and let ourselves in.

But just what do we expect to find as we cross that threshold? For starters, opportunity. In the past decade we have done a terrific job at capitalizing on the opportunities that expanding our building, our collection, and our fundraising provided us. Bully for us! But we are fast running out of opportunities. We are coming very close to reaching the limit of exhibitions that we can present, the limit of space for adding things to our collection, the limit of children being served, the limit of programs that can be offered to the community, and the limit of activity our annual budget can realistically support. Collectively, we are about to reach the limit of the dreams we all had twelve years ago for this Museum. I don’t think that is any more acceptable to you than it is to me. So, it’s time for us all to double down on the creativity we mustered in the throes of this pandemic and let it be the catalyst for a new dream.

What do we want this updated version of our brave new world to look like? A rough sketch would show more programming in the foreground: more exhibitions and more learning experiences onsite, more virtual experiences in the comfort of your homes and classrooms, and more access to the diverse community of artists throughout the country and the world. In the middle-ground of this sketch, you’d see the outline of the Museum’s building expanding to the North with lines of visitors stretching out in every direction. The bright spots within the building’s geometry likely represent a profusion of glass sculptures, an array like no other museum in the Midwest. Looking further into the sketch, you’d see a solid range of stable mountains that represents our significantly expanded endowed funds with which we will guarantee our service in the present and our stability in the future. This sketch broadly hints at my dreams for our brave new world: a new gallery wing for contemporary glass, expanded collection storage space, an endowment to support continued collection growth, a new facility maintenance endowment, and a doubling of our current operating endowment. Phew! That’s a big and expensive-sounding dream. It is that, and more. But stick with me and, together, we might be able to make this brave new world a reality. It’s the next step of what will be our legend.

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