The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture has named Wanda Q. Draper its new executive director.
A veteran communications professional in Baltimore, she's arriving as the 11-year-old museum seems in many ways reinvigorated — in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, chief curator Charles E. Bethea has interjected contemporary questions about race and society into the Lewis' programming.
At the same time, it's encountering challenges old and new — the Sept. 24 opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture may present competition for an institution already fighting to increase its fundraising and attendance.
Although stressing that she has yet to sit down with the board or other staff to discuss plans in any detail, Draper said, "I like where the museum is. I do think there's so much more that can be done, facilities that we can expand on."
In particular, she noted, the Lewis needs to record and preserve "more people's stories," as well as expand curriculum offerings aimed at area students. "We definitely need to determine where [the curriculum] is and where it's going, so that students in Maryland private and public schools have access and opportunities to learn more."
Draper, currently WBAL-TV 11's director of programming and public affairs, will replace A. "Skipp" Sanders, who retired in January.
As one of the museum's original board members, Draper co-chaired the museum's opening in 2005, and served as co-chair of the board's marketing and public relations committee, according to a news release.
"I was part of the founding board of the museum, and of all of the boards and things that I've participated in my career, I spent more time with the museum than anything else in my life," Draper said.
Following Sanders' retirement, the Lewis Museum conducted a national search for the next director that drew a multitude of applicants, museum board chair Beverly Cooper said. Draper stood out for her involvement with the museum from its inception, as well as her varied experience, Cooper said.
Draper previously worked as director of community affairs and visitor services at the National Aquarium, reporter and editor for The Evening Sun, and television panelist on the PBS program "Maryland NewsRap."
"She was one of the originals, and she was there when they were thinking about the museum and what we should do with the museum," Cooper said.
Since Bethea took over as chief curator in January, the museum has maintained a sharper focus on contemporary events, with exhibits, workshops and presentations on incidents surrounding the death of Gray, as well as on the resulting civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cooper said the museum would continue its efforts to reflect on current events.
Such a focus, she acknowledged, may have come at the cost of neglecting a museum's traditional role, of chronicling and preserving the past. "It took over a little bit," she said of the Lewis' focus on the present. "We had the uprising, and we also had the trials," she said. "That almost took precedence for a short time. We want to have a balance."
As Draper steps into the museum's top position, there are three main challenges she will face, Cooper said: the museum's financial stability, visibility and small staff.
The Lewis has struggled financially and consistently failed to meet a state requirement that it generate $2 million, half its annual budget, in privately raised revenue. Draper said she never could have imagined a recession would hit just a few years after the museum's opening, and she sees keeping the museum financially viable as a challenge and an opportunity.
She said the museum has a strong foundation, upon which she hopes to build a donor base, strengthen its branding and take advantage of its technological assets.
"The original mission of that museum was to have the world know about Maryland's African-American history, and I think that that is still the vision today because so many people don't know," Draper said. "And I think it's even more important now."
Cooper said she sees little threat from next month's opening of the Smithsonian's museum, and is not worried about a possible decrease in attendance. "Our museum is concentrated mostly on Maryland African-Americans," she said, "whereas that museum is going to be concentrating on everybody. They won't be able to go in depth the way we can about African-Americans in Maryland."
Draper, likewise, said she looks forward to the opening of the new Smithsonian museum. Noting that the Lewis already is affiliated with the Smithsonian, she believes the two institutions will be able to work together to each other's benefit.
"What I think it will do is increase interest in African-American museums," Draper said. "We'll be partnering with them, on a number of things. ... I see it as adding to our audience."
Draper will take on her new role Sept. 28. "This is not a job; this is a labor of love," she said, "because I love that museum."
Wanda Q. Draper
Born: July 17, 1951, in Baltimore
Family: Husband Dr. Robert Draper, orthopedic surgeon; two children; two grandchildren
Education: Bachelor's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park; attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Contemporary Studies and the University of Maryland School of Law
Career: Panelist for the public television program "Maryland NewsRap"; reporter and columnist for The Evening Sun; director of community affairs and visitor services for the National Aquarium in Baltimore; director of programming and public affairs at WBAL-TV (current)
Community: St. Timothy's School board, Brigance Brigade Foundation board, Stevenson University board