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A perfect fit for the Lewis museum

Wanda Draper, WBAL-TV director of programming, and Dr. Bob Draper, retired orthopedic surgeon It wasn't just the holiday season that dozens of Baltimore business folks celebrated at the Mount Vernon offices of Feats Inc. They strolled the building's three floors, enjoying the offerings of various bars and food stations at a party to commemorate the events and marketing firm's 30th anniversary.
Wanda Draper, WBAL-TV director of programming, and Dr. Bob Draper, retired orthopedic surgeon It wasn't just the holiday season that dozens of Baltimore business folks celebrated at the Mount Vernon offices of Feats Inc. They strolled the building's three floors, enjoying the offerings of various bars and food stations at a party to commemorate the events and marketing firm's 30th anniversary. (Sloane Brown, For The Baltimore Sun)

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture has been one of Baltimore's most underappreciated cultural gems for more than a decade. Housed in a high-tech building on Pratt Street downtown, it's still easy to miss amid the crush of entertainment venues, traffic snarls and other distractions around the Inner Harbor — despite its superb collection of art and artifacts chronicling more than 300 years of black struggle and achievement in the state.

But that may be about to change with the museum's announcement last week that Wanda Q. Draper, a veteran Baltimore journalist and public relations executive, will join the institution in September as its new executive director. Ms. Draper, who served as one of the founding board members of the museum when it opened in 2005, brings to the job the passion, leadership skills and wealth of experience the institution needs to raise its profile around the state and across the country.

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Though the museum has mounted dozens of intriguing, well-received exhibitions since its founding, it's also had to struggle to expand its audience and meet a state requirement that it generate $2 million, or half its annual budget, through privately raised revenues. Attendance and corporate donations are also down. Only about 33,000 people came through the museum's doors during the last fiscal year, a drop of about a third from its all-time high of more than 50,000 visitors, while corporate support has yet to fully rebound from the financial crisis that began in 2008.

Ms. Draper acknowledges the difficult challenges facing the museum but insists that such problems can be overcome. Last year the Lewis hired a promising new chief curator, Charles E. Bethea, who has already begun working on an exciting new schedule of exhibitions. Ms. Draper plans to work closely with him to attract new audiences, build up the museum's donor base and raise the institution's profile locally and nationally as a cutting-edge arts and cultural forum that is as attuned to the contemporary African-American experience as it is to the historical forces that shaped it.

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One of the first things the new director hopes to accomplish is to put the museum's public and private school education programs back on track at both the elementary and secondary school levels. Young people make up one of the museum's core target audiences, but lack of transportation has been one of the biggest barriers to bringing them through its doors.

Ms. Draper also wants to burnish the museum's image through collaborations with other institutions, such as the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture scheduled to open next month in Washington, D.C. Far from seeing it as a competitor, Ms. Draper has embraced the idea that her museum's association with that institution can only strengthen the Lewis museum's brand. People who visit the museum in the nation's capital will come away much more open to having a similar experience in Baltimore because they already know what to expect. It's a win-win for both institutions if people who see one of them are then inspired to visit the other.

There's no question Ms. Draper has her work cut out for her mending the Lewis museum's finances and educational programs, rebuilding its donor base and putting on top quality exhibitions of African-American history, culture and art that stir viewers' hearts and minds. But she's a perfect fit for the post. The new director describes her task ahead not as a job but as a labor of love, and we have every reason to believe her. We have witnessed Ms. Draper achieve amazing things over her long career, and we look forward to being amazed again by how much she is capable of accomplishing when she puts her mind to ensuring the Lewis museum leaves an enduring legacy in Baltimore.

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