It’s fair to say that both Terri Lee Freeman and the museum she leads — the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore — are in a rebuilding phase.
For Freeman, the past three years encompassed a cross-country move from Memphis, Tennessee, where she headed the National Civil Rights Museum, to Baltimore to take the job at the Lewis in the midst of a pandemic. That period also included the deaths of two family members who were Freeman’s solace and her rock: the single mother who had raised her and her husband of 36 years.
“For a while,” Freeman said, “I felt I had lost my grounding.”
For the past few years, it seemed that the Lewis also was struggling to find its footing.
After underperforming for most of its existence, Maryland’s largest African American museum briefly experienced a resurgence during the three years it was led by former Executive Director Wanda Q. Draper. But when Draper stepped down in 2019 for family reasons, the museum was still financially fragile.
Jacqueline Copeland succeeded her, but was ousted just 18 months later because she and board members disagreed on everything from financial strategies to when it was safe to reopen the Lewis during the pandemic. The shake-up occurred three weeks before the Lewis was scheduled to resume in-person visits. (Copeland now chairs the Maryland State Arts Council.)
In September 2020, the museum reopened its doors with Draper in place briefly as interim director. But since then, relatively few people have walked through them.
In the fiscal year ending July 30, 2022, the Lewis had just 19,236 visitors, according to its annual report, including school groups and online attendees. That’s about half of its previous all-time low of 33,000 visitors in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, and a fraction of the 104,500 visits the museum received in the 12 months after its June 2005 grand opening.
“Attendance has dropped precipitously,” acknowledged Freeman, who was named the museum’s seventh executive director in December 2020. “The school field trips we had before COVID haven’t returned.”
A five-year plan for the future
The museum’s dearth of visitors certainly isn’t unique; arts groups nationwide are grappling with how to lure back audiences hesitant to return to theaters, galleries and concert halls.
But unlike the vast majority of Maryland arts groups, the Lewis is a quasi-state agency. Taxpayers foot the bill for 50% of the museum’s annual budget. This year, that appropriation came to a bit more than $2.1 million, or roughly $111 per visitor.
That situation has to change, the museum’s board leaders say.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” said Drew Hawkins, chairman of the Lewis’ board of directors. “In the past, we sometimes placed Band-Aids on our problems. It’s going to take time, but I’m confident now that we’re addressing some of these issues.”
In the fall of 2021, the board of directors adopted an ambitious five-year strategic plan.
Goals include increasing attendance to an average of about 70,000 visitors annually and expanding annual contributions, which this year were $1.14 million, by 65%. In addition, the plan calls for extending the museum’s reach statewide over the next five years and forging connections with at least 11 counties outside Baltimore.
Freeman concedes that getting there won’t be easy. But she is certain that it is possible.
“I don’t usually set goals … we can’t accomplish,” she said.
The Lewis always has had a bit of a split personality, flipping back and forth between the two cultural pursuits that make up its name. Some years, it has mounted mostly historical exhibits. Other years, it focused heavily on art.
Freeman leans toward the historical side of the equation, but with an asterisk. She has no intention of dwelling in the past. What interests her is using history as a springboard to discuss contemporary issues.
“It’s the concept of the museum as a public square,” she said.
“The goal is to open up discussion and dialogue and to connect the past to the present and future. There aren’t a lot of places where you can have different ideologies voiced and be O.K. I would like to think we could be one of them.”
A vision for a redesigned museum
Transforming a museum into a public square takes a lot of planning and money.
Earlier this year, the museum received a $4.5 million state grant to kick-start a campaign to refresh the museum’s permanent exhibit and to renovate the third floor. The board will seek to raise $25 million, with the goal of completing construction in about eight years.
“One of the first things I noticed after I arrived,” Freeman said, “was that for all intents and purposes, the permanent exhibition looks exactly the same as it did when the museum opened in 2005. While it was cutting-edge then, it isn’t any longer. It needs to be updated.”
By “updated” she means using technology to create more interactive and immersive experiences, an approach that paid big dividends when Freeman led the National Civil Rights Museum through a $27.5 million renovation in 2013-14.
Myrtis Bedolla, owner and founder of Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis, has seen firsthand what Freeman accomplished in Memphis, and that makes her eager to see what she can achieve in Baltimore.
The Civil Rights museum has new interactive exhibits now, such as a 1950s-style lunch counter where visitors sit while being taunted by the taped voices of hecklers. Guests can board a replica of a 1955 bus, take a seat near a statue of Rosa Parks and listen as the taped voice of the driver admonishes Black passengers to move to the back of the bus or risk being arrested.
“I witnessed the before and the after of what Terri did at the Civil Rights Museum,” Bedolla said. “The transformation was remarkable and deeply moving.
“Terri has the vision, and she has the skills to put that vision into place.”
The board hopes to unveil the redesigned museum for the Lewis’ 25th anniversary celebration in 2030.
But some exhibits will be on display much earlier. For instance, a new and permanent exhibit commemorating Maryland lynching victims is expected to open in about a year. Freeman said visitors to the exhibit will be encouraged to think about the forms hate crimes take today.
“We will fast-forward the history of the 38 [people] we have acknowledged were lynched in this state to what continues to happen,” she said.
“Lynching is a snuffing out of someone’s life, and when you incarcerate people for years and years for a marijuana charge, you lynch their ability to function effectively in today’s society.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, was instrumental in securing $650,000 to fund the lynching exhibit earlier this year. He has only met Freeman a handful of times. But those encounters lasted long enough for Van Hollen to be impressed by Freeman’s passion and drive.
“Terri Freeman hit the ground running,” he said. “It was very clear very early on that she has important ambitions for the Lewis. She is very dynamic, and in my view, a real powerhouse.
“I think she’s exactly what this museum needs.”