The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture has seen its share of both lean and healthy times.
The Baltimore landmark ended the 2016 fiscal year with about $400,000, a paltry sum for a museum.
However, the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened a year ago and after Wanda Draper was named the new executive director replacing the retired A. “Skipp” Sanders, the museum rebounded — generating $1.5 million in its most recent fiscal year.
“Like most nonprofits, we’re struggling financially … but we’re showing progress including retail sales and my goal is to keep us firing on all fronts and moving us forward,” said Draper, a longtime communications professional who worked 25 years at WBAL-TV in Baltimore.
Draper said the new museum, located just 38 miles down Interstate 95 in northwest D.C., has helped.
“It helps us tremendously,” she said, noting that museum’s executive director, Lonnie Bunch, once attend board meetings at the Lewis museum as he adopted his vision and plan for the D.C. location.
“We have a connection, we are a Smithsonian-affiliate and we work very well,” Draper said. “The biggest advantage is that people go there and it’s crowded so they often stop here,.”
The Lewis Museum has undergone a major reorganization since Draper took over as executive director, she said.
“As a result, we do business a little different and one of the things we’ve been able to do over the last nine months is connect our community to the museum,” Draper said.
A Baltimore native, Draper graduated from the journalism program at the University of Maryland and later attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Contemporary Studies and the University of Maryland School of Law.
She served on the original board of directors at the museum in 1999, after initially turning down the board.
“I was so busy that I didn’t think I had time and, every time that I had been asked to serve on a board, it’s one of those things where you show up, you write a check and go to a gala,” Draper said.
Quickly, however, she learned the Reginald F. Lewis Museum board was different. It involved hands-on work, such as brainstorming ideas on where to locate the museum and how to raise money, she said.
Of course, a letter from the governor inviting her to serve — sent just a couple of days after she initially turned the offer down — convinced her to join the board, she said.
The rest is history.
“The first time I came to a board meeting for the museum, the whole concept of having an African-American museum in downtown Baltimore kind of hooked me,” Draper said.
For eight years beginning in 1999, Draper served as one of the founding board members.
During the first five years on the board, she said members not only were tasked with raising capital and finding a location, but they also had to decide who would design and build the museum.
“We raised $38 million to pay for the museum so that we could open debt free and we raised [an additional] $2.5 million to design and install a permanent collection so the museum could also be debt free,” Draper said.
Today, Draper said challenges remain, including getting Baltimore residents to visit the historic museum. While many visit from outside of Maryland and even from other countries, Draper said it’s been difficult persuading the locals to come.
“I think people don’t appreciate what we have here while those from other countries and states are blown away,” she said. “I think local people have not come inside to see what we have and when they have, they’re amazed that we have 82,000 square feet of space and 13,000 square feet of just exhibits.”
A new highlight is the “Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence” exhibit that runs through Jan. 7. It features more than 50 prints by Lawrence from personal collections in and around the state.
“He’s one of the best-known artists of the 20th century,” Draper said of the famed painter, storyteller and educator whose renowned for his portrayals of African-American life. “The difference is that you will not see this anywhere else in the world in 50 pieces. Every single one of the pieces are owned by someone in Maryland who loaned it to us. When you walk in, it literally takes your breath away.”