Off the Cuff: The Next Century Initiative

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

The year-long celebration of FWMoA’s 100th anniversary was splendid in every way. The parties and special events were augmented by a series of exhibitions, programs, and presentations that explored the activities and achievements of each decade of the museum’s history. There were many presents to celebrate our 100th birthday and many generous donors who underwrote this extensive calendar of insightful programming and added several major pieces of art to the collection to commemorate the occasion, which the community will now enjoy for years to come.

FWMoA President & CEO stands, smiling, next to a glass piece from the museum permanent collection.
FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

It is the years that lie ahead of us that are presently on my mind. While I have served at the helm of our museum for the last two decades of FWMoA’s 100 years, my mind, my eyes, and my imagination are now steadfastly focused on the horizon as we sail past our centennial and on into the century to come. To maximize the potential for the Museum’s future success, we’ve begun developing a plan, the Next Century Initiative, which will articulate how we can capitalize and expand on our existing strengths; for example, we are fortunate to have an endowment that, for the most part, has steadily grown. During our 100th, we received a gift of $2 million to the endowment, for which we are extremely grateful. That said, for the Next Century we are thinking more boldly, starting to make plans to double (or triple!) our endowment to ensure that our finances are sufficient to support our exhibition and educational goals in the coming years.

We also want to continue to expand our world-class glass collection to advance the museum toward our goal of becoming the Midwest’s center for studio glass. This entails acquiring, by gift or purchase, one (or more) significant pieces by each of the approximately 700 major glass artists who have worked or are currently working in glass between 1963 – 2023. Taking this goal to an even higher level, we would pursue additional pieces of glass from each of those artists’ phases of his/her aesthetic evolution. I say this because a later work by, say, Harvey Littleton or Dale Chihuly is dramatically more sophisticated and complex than an earlier piece; essentially true for all of the glass artists, to provide a full and rich history we should try to chronicle these developments. This type of pursuit, one that focuses on the evolution of an artist or medium, is exactly what museums are built to do, but it quickly becomes a daunting and complicated adventure. To put this in perspective, the FWMoA currently has at least one work by close to 160 different glass sculptors, but we only have multiple pieces by about thirty artists. Therefore, in Next Century terms, we have a lot of work to do! We already have good traction in our efforts: we’re currently in active conversations with seven different collectors about potential future gifts of glass by artists that aren’t presently in our permanent collection. There are also another dozen collectors who are quietly mulling the idea of helping us when they get ready to downsize their homes and their collections. In addition to promised and proposed donations, we have two additional donors who — while not glass collectors themselves — would like to help us restore our June E. Enoch Collection Fund to the million-dollar level to facilitate new purchases. Collectively, these generous individuals have the distinct ability to help us shape the first two decades of our Next Century Initiative.

A photo of glass artworks on display in the museum hallway.
FWMoA’s Contemporary Studio Glass exhibit in the hallway has now expanded into the galleries, creating a glass wing in the museum. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As enthusiastic as I am about the medium, glass alone won’t be driving the growth of our collection in the next 100 years. Our print collection continues to progress in its efforts to articulate the history of printmaking in America, our historic bronze sculpture collection has begun expanding nicely, and our ceramic collection, dormant until recently, is showing new signs of life. While we currently have no fashion collection, the success of our Bill Blass exhibition this year has sparked a series of conversations internally about the potential role of fashion, jewelry, and high-end craft in the museum’s future.

A bronze sculpture of a blacksmith.
Emile Louis Picault, French, French, 1833-1915. La Forge. Bronze, gold-brown patina, ca. 1900. Gift of Mrs. M. E. Dessauer, 1961.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

All of which brings us to the question of space. For different but related reasons, both the City of Fort Wayne and the FWMoA have evolved into “destinations” in the past decade. The museum’s expansion in 2009 felt just right at the time, enabling us to serve the community with 20-plus temporary exhibitions, tripling the size of the gift shop, tripling the size of our art storage vaults, and doubling the size of the auditorium. In the decade that followed, we outgrew all of these expanded spaces, especially the galleries and the art storage vaults as the collection grew some 400%. During the same period of time, the development of Fort Wayne began to transform the Downtown District and morph into a “destination” that rivaled any other city in the state of Indiana. It occurred to me in the middle of our 100th anniversary celebration that everything around us had grown, everything within our own walls had grown, but our building was bursting at the seams and no longer a good fit for the programming we delivered. It became clear to me that doubling in size to accommodate more temporary exhibitions, galleries filled with our collection’s treasures, space for educational programming, vaults to house the collection, and a bigger retail footprint to drive additional earned income were necessary. Do we go up vertically, out horizontally, or put up a skybridge and jump across the street? These are all options that we’re beginning to discuss.

These thoughts only touch on the items that are currently on my Next Century Initiative agenda; but, I wanted to share them with you to give you a sense of the things that are just around the corner as we begin the first decade of our next 100 years.

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