In a surprise announcement, Wanda Q. Draper said Friday that she will retire next month as executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
Draper, 67, of Pikesville, said in an interview that she’s stepping down on Feb. 12 to spend more time with her family. Jackie Copeland, the Lewis’ director of education and visitor services and who has served as Draper’s second in command, will become the museum’s interim executive director.
“I've been working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week,” Draper said. “I wish I had gotten this job when I was 50 and it was easier to keep running at this pace. But it has been becoming increasingly difficult to balance my job with my personal responsibilities. I have two grand-babies in Saudi Arabia that I’ve never seen.”
Draper’s decision to leave after less than three years in the post sent shock waves through museum boosters, who have watched her revive a once-ailing institution in a very short time by leveraging her management skills and her Rolodex. Before taking the job at the Lewis, Draper honed her business acumen as WBAL-TV 11’s director of programming and public affairs. Previously, she managed community affairs and visitor services for the National Aquarium.
The next board of directors’ meeting is scheduled for Jan. 24. The panel will either select Draper’s successor or vote on a procedure for choosing a permanent executive director, according to Maurice C. Taylor, chairman of the board of directors for the Maryland African American Museum Corporation, which runs the Lewis.
“Wanda has done a magnificent job,” Taylor said. “But she has made a personal and family decision and we fully support her. The best institutions don’t succeed or fail because of one person. Wanda has put into place procedures and personnel that will sustain the museum long into the future.”
Chief among Draper’s accomplishments was fulfilling a state requirement to generate $2 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018. This was the first time since 2008 and just the second time in the institution’s 13-year history that it met that annual requirement. The year before Draper took the helm, the museum had generated a mere $473,490 in revenue.
The increased fundraising is largely a result of a re-energized board of directors, Draper said. Nine new executives, or nearly one-third of the 30-member board, have joined the organization in the past two years. Many have held top posts in such corporations as Morgan Stanley Wealth Management and the health care giant Kaiser Permanente.
“We have the kind of corporate leadership now that can help the museum move forward,” Draper said.
Democratic lawmaker Adrienne A. Jones, speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, said she initially was dismayed when Draper told her she was leaving.
Jones chairs the House Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, which holds biennial public hearings on the museum’s finances. In the past, the Lewis’ failure to meet its annual revenue requirement had been a recurring problem for Jones’ subcommittee. Sometimes taxpayers made up the difference, kicking in an additional $880,000 over two budget cycles, according to budget reports by the State Department of Legislative Services. Other years, the museum’s budget was slashed, which meant it provided fewer services.
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By turning around the Lewis in just two years, “Wanda more than lived up to my expectations,” Jones said.
But if Jones initially had feared that the museum’s momentum would stall once Draper left, she said those fears were put to rest when she learned that Copeland would become interim executive director. Before joining the Lewis, Copeland spent 30 years working for such major arts institutions as the Walters Art Museum and Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center.
“I knew Jackie when she was at the Walters, and she really gets it,” Jones said. “Wanda laid the foundation for success, and I have every confidence that under Jackie, the Lewis will continue to move forward.”
It was Copeland, for instance, who came up with the idea for a series of annual exhibits called “Maryland Collects” organized around loans from wealthy patrons. These shows — which featured the works of pioneering artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — had all the splash of the traveling exhibits the Lewis had hosted previously, but came together at a fraction of the time and cost.
“When I came in as executive director in 2016, the museum already had everything it needed to be successful,” Draper said. “We just had to fix the management. We’ve done that now, and our upward trajectory is going to continue. If I hadn’t thought I was leaving the museum in good hands, I would have tried to put off my retirement. But Jackie’s museum experience and curatorial abilities are through the roof.”
By some measures, though, the Lewis still is finding its footing. For instance, the annual attendance (47,580 for the last fiscal year) remains low.
“American museum attendance is declining nationwide,” Draper said. “Our growth will have to be in our education programs. That is where we have the greatest opportunity. When we held our Kwanzaa celebration last Saturday, the attendance was 1,639.”
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In a statement, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh described Draper as “a committed and visionary leader of our community for many years” and said she was “so grateful for her many contributions” to the Lewis museum.
“Although her announcement is unexpected,” Pugh’s statement said, “we look forward to building on the progress she has made possible to ensure that this vital learning center and museum engages and instructs our residents and visitors for generations to come.”
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Julia Marciari-Alexander, director of the Walters Art Museum, said that Draper excelled at finding a unique niche for the Lewis in Baltimore’s cultural community.
“The Lewis isn’t just an art museum, and it isn’t just a history museum,” Marciari-Alexander said.
“It’s a gathering place where community members can come together and talk about the challenging issues of the day. And it’s also a state institution with an educational mission. Wanda made sure that the Lewis plays a role in all those spheres.”
She said that Draper was instrumental in strengthening ties between different Baltimore arts groups — and at embedding the Lewis even more deeply into the city’s cultural community.
Draper said she’s not ruling out working for the Lewis in the future in a volunteer capacity.