Jacqueline “Jackie” Copeland, the former executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture and a longtime, passionate advocate for the visual arts, died Wednesday at Mercy Medical Center of complications from cancer. The Pikesville resident was 76.
“Throughout her life, she not only curated art but also cultivated love, forged friendships and nurtured knowledge within us all. As an award-winning museum educator, cherished colleague, devoted mother, loving wife, and guardian of African American art, her legacy shines brightly,” Ms. Copeland’s family said in a statement emailed to The Baltimore Sun.
Ms. Copeland, who most recently was chair of the Maryland State Arts Council, spent three decades working for major museums nationwide and studying every aspect of how successful arts institutions operate. She took over leadership of the Lewis Museum in 2019.
At the time, Ms. 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.”
A talented and innovative curator, Ms. Copeland spent three decades working for some of the largest museums in the U.S., including a 15-year stint at the Walters Art Museum, where she was co-director of education and 10 years at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Julia Marciari-Alexander, Walters Art Museum director, said, “Jackie was a force for the arts in Baltimore and beyond. During her 15 years at the Walters, first as the director of education and public programming and later as the deputy director for audience engagement, she was an enthusiastic advocate for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
“Engaging visitors with art was at the heart of what drove her work, whether it was by inspiring her team to connect with multi-generational visitors through unique interactive opportunities or establishing broader community engagement through key partnerships with institutions such as Morgan State, Kennedy Krieger, MICA, or UMBC.
“An accomplished scholar and teacher as well, she led the museum to be more expansive as it considered the connections of place, past, and present, from her exhibition Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project [in 2008 to 2009] to acquiring works that expanded the representation of women and artists of color in the collection.
“It was a tremendous privilege to work with and learn from her, and I look forward to celebrating her legacy at the Walters in a memorial service we will hold at the museum later in the fall,” Ms. Marciari-Alexander said.
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in the Petworth community, she was the daughter of Harold Tipps and Lucille Patterson Tipps, both federal employees.
She was a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School and earned a degree in art history from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Ms. Copeland was instrumental in getting the once-ailing Lewis Museum back on track over her tenure. But after 18 months as executive director, Copeland said she resigned after “the board told me it wanted to go in a different direction with the museum’s leadership.”
In 2021 she became chair of the Maryland State Arts Council, which during the pandemic awarded more than $12 million in emergency funds to more than 1,600 artists and cultural groups.
The critically acclaimed photographer Dawoud Bey, wrote in a social media post that Ms. Copeland was a “tireless and brilliant culture and institutional worker” with whom he had collaborated twice — once at the Walker, and once at the Walters.
“Jackie was a real advocate for making the museum space a more inclusive one for young people and others often excluded from the institutional equation,” Mr. Bey said.
Ms. Copeland curated exhibitions by African American artists including Barbara Chase-Riboud, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett.
She was an adjunct professor of art history, African American art and museum studies in colleges and universities in Illinois and Minnesota.
She taught for nine years at Towson University.
She was named one of The Baltimore Sun’s 25 Women to Watch and one of Baltimore Magazine’s “Women Who Move Maryland.”
In a 2022 Sun article, she said, “We’ve leveled the playing field [to provide grants] to smaller institutions that could be led by people of color and which, historically, haven’t had that funding.”
The Sun article described her as a “fierce and lifelong advocate for the arts.”
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“Art and community are my passions,” she told the Sun. “I love engaging with students of all ages, bringing African American history to life so people can understand the contributions of Blacks to our global culture.”
She was also a curator of private collections, a museum consultant, and a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums.
She sat on several committees at Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. and on the board of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
In a 2020 essay in The Sun, she wrote, “like most of the more than 35,000 museums in the U.S., African American museums preserve, collect, document and interpret our culture. However, these 200 museums (less than 1% of all museums in this country) also do more than that — they present a narrative of an African American past that has been forgotten, overlooked, neglected, misinterpreted, whitewashed or erased from the history books.
“We tell our true histories — both harsh and celebratory — from our own perspectives, expanded by the research and discoveries of scholars and curators, many of them people of color,” she wrote.
A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 26 at People’s Congregation United Church of Christ, 4704 13th Street NW, Washington, D.C. A life celebration will be held from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Walters Art Museum.
Survivors include her husband, Rene Copeland, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and computer salesman; a daughter, Traci Copeland of Seattle, Washington; and a son, Kevin Fraser of New York City.