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In leadership shakeup at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Wanda Q. Draper to return as interim executive director

Wanda Q. Draper turned around the once-struggling Reginald Lewis Museum during her two years as executive director. She is returning to that role after retiring last year.
Wanda Q. Draper turned around the once-struggling Reginald Lewis Museum during her two years as executive director. She is returning to that role after retiring last year. (Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun)

One of Baltimore’s biggest museums is looking for a new leader to help it navigate through an era marked by COVID-19 and social justice activism.

Executive director Jackie Copeland departed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture this week. Former director Wanda Draper, who retired from the same position last year, is back in the role on an interim basis.

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Board chair Drew Hawkins declined to comment directly on Copeland’s departure, calling it a personnel matter, but said, “We recognize and appreciate her as a professional.” The board asked Draper to return while it searches for a permanent replacement.

Copeland, who took over in 2019, could not be reached for comment.

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The change in leadership comes as museums across the country are reevaluating how they reach visitors as they limit visitors to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Institutions like the Louvre in Paris and Washington’s National Gallery have seen huge increases in web traffic. Some offer video walk-throughs of exhibitions.

Copeland had been key in keeping the once-beleaguered museum on track since joining its staff.

But so had Draper, who had helped boost revenues, fulfilling a state requirement to generate $2 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018. The year before Draper took over the museum, it generated just $473,490 in revenue.

Draper said she is exploring ways to develop an audience for the Lewis’ 10,000-piece permanent collection as well as to work with Maryland’s education department to supplement virtual curricula, helping to educate children on Black history at a time when school is happening online, and field trips may be a thing of the past.

“The things that we have traditionally done will not suffice,” she said.

The Pratt Street institution created by Maryland’s General Assembly is closed because of COVID-19 but scheduled to reopen in early September. The building’s large size, nearly 90,000 square feet, makes it possible for visitors to maintain social distance indoors, Hawkins said.

In coming months, museum leadership will need to rethink their previous fundraising methods, such as an annual in-person gala.

Hawkins said the Lewis’ collection is an asset in an age when more people, including white people, are thinking about Black history. “Being an African American institution such as this is really going to provide us an opportunity now,” Hawkins said.

While revenue from ticket sales and in-person events has dropped to zero since March, Hawkins said, the Lewis has seen increased interest from individual and corporate donors in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Draper called Copeland, both her predecessor and successor, “a consummate museum professional. It’s all she ever wanted to do in life, and it’s definitely the love of her life.”

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum, said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the news of Copeland’s departure. He praised her recent work at the Lewis and its dedication to Baltimore. Under Copeland’s leadership, the Lewis recently received a grant of more than $150,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a reflection, he said, of Copeland’s “sterling” reputation.

Vikan, who had brought Copeland to Baltimore to work at the Walters, said, “She was in the top handful of — a very small handful — of my best hires.” Vikan retired as director in 2013. “I wish I could hire her back, but I don’t have a job to give her.”

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Draper attributed the increase in revenue under her tenure largely to a revitalization of the board of directors, which saw the arrival of new members like Hawkins, CEO and founder of Edyoucore Sports & Entertainment.

Revenue for 2019′s fiscal year was just under $4 million, a slight dip from the previous year, when it was more than $4 million, according to financial statements on the museum’s website.

At 69, Draper joked that she is “too old to work,” but said she would give the role “my best shot at probably the most difficult and challenging time in the life of any institution.”

Draper’s departure in 2019 came as a surprise to many. At the time she said she wanted to spend more time with her family, and Friday she told The Baltimore Sun that she enjoyed traveling extensively during her time away. But she remained in contact with board members, Hawkins said.

“Even though she retired to spend time with her family, her heart was still with the museum,” Hawkins said. He was heartened to see her return and said, “We’re going to be positioned really well to move this place forward.”

Her return was met with praise by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, who said in a statement: “Wanda has had a strong track record of managing and improving the visitor experience at the Reginald Lewis Museum. We have had a good working relationship, and I’m pleased to see that she’s back in this role, for the good of the Museum and the State.”

Previously, Draper, a Baltimore County resident, developed her business acumen as WBAL-TV′s director of programming and public affairs. She managed community affairs and visitor services for the National Aquarium. She also had worked as a reporter and editor at The Evening Sun.

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

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