Jackie Copeland is the new executive director of the Reginald Lewis museum.
Jackie Copeland is the new executive director of the Reginald Lewis museum. (Colby Ware / The Baltimore Sun)

Jackie Copeland, who has spent three decades working for major museums nationwide and studying every aspect of how successful arts institutions operate, was appointed Thursday night as executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

Copeland, 71, currently the Lewis’ second in command, will begin her new job Feb. 13, the day after Wanda Q. Draper officially retires. She was selected by the board of directors to fill the vacancy created after Draper announced earlier this year that she was stepping down for family reasons.


Board chairman Maurice Taylor said Friday that the board decided to forgo a nationwide search for Draper’s replacement. Partly, that’s because members feared that a lengthy search process would jeopardize the Lewis’ recent forward momentum. And partly, that’s because Copeland, who lives with her husband in Pikesville, has been instrumental in getting the once-ailing museum back on track in the two years since she joined the institution.

Wanda Draper is retiring as the executive director of Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum to spend more time with her family; her last day will be Feb. 12.

“Continued success means that an organization has to step up its game each year,” Taylor said, adding that he had floated Copeland’s name as an executive director candidate in 2016, the last time the museum conducted a leadership search.

That job went to Draper. Under her helm, the institution raised the $2 million required by its agreement with the state for just the second time in its 13-year history. Draper also increased attendance nearly 6 percent in two years, from 45,032 to 47,580. Copeland helped achieve both goals by devising a way of mounting crowd-pleasing exhibits of the works of pioneering artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden without straining the museum’s budget.

“But it’s not enough for the museum to reach a certain level of success and maintain it,” Taylor said.

“When you do a nationwide search and hire someone from outside Baltimore, that person will have a learning curve no matter how good they are. And Jackie’s qualifications are just outstanding. She’s been a big part of our recent success.”

Copeland described her appointment as “the capstone of my career because it brings together my passion for the community and my passion for art and history.” She’s said she’s been preparing for her new post for her entire professional life.

“I’ve got a goal,” she said. “I know what an excellent museum feels like, and I want to make sure that the Lewis gets there. A museum is like a three-legged stool: The executive director is one leg, the staff and team is the second leg and the board is the third leg. You can’t have any legs that are weak. They all have to stand up and work together.”

Two years after taking the helm of Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the institution is finally starting to live up to its considerable potential.

After graduating from Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, Copeland earned a graduate degree in art history at the University of Rochester in New York. In 2004, she completed a program at the Getty Leadership Institute in California that trains museum professionals to assume senior leadership roles.

She spent 10 years at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis early in her career, eventually becoming co-director of education. In 2001 former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan lured Copeland to Baltimore as the museum’s education director.

“I have long believed that Jackie would make an excellent museum director,” Vikan said. “She’s an extremely talented manager, and she leads from her values, from what she thinks is right. I couldn’t be a bigger fan.”

Copeland spent 15 years at the Walters before retiring in 2016. She’s in her 12th year teaching a course on the Harlem Renaissance at Towson University and is a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums. In the latter role, she visits museums nationwide and evaluates every aspect of their operation, from budgets to leadership structures to outreach programs.

“Jackie is a superstar,” said the Walters’ current director, Julia Marciari-Alexander. She added that the Walters continues to benefit from innovative partnerships with local colleges instituted by Copeland that, among other things, train talented minority students for museum careers.

“She's a national leader in our field,” Marciari-Alexander said. “The Lewis is very privileged to have Jackie at the helm.”