Arts & Culture

Cameo: Wanda Draper

We talked to the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

What have the first two months on the job been like for you?
I still get up in the morning excited and I still go to bed at night with all these ideas. Simply put, I’m loving it. I’m so glad to be here. I am loving the fact that I remember what the original vision was for this museum, when we didn’t have land, we didn’t have a building, we didn’t have anything. I remember when we had our first gala and we had to have it at the Meyerhoff because we didn’t have a place to have it, and we raised $1 million. To think now about what we were trying to do just to get the building open in 2005, and now 11 years later, [we’re] looking at how do we take this museum forward in the next decade. Our mission is education, so how do we educate now as opposed to how we thought we would in 2005? How do we reach our audiences now, how do we determine and target audiences now? So much has changed since 2005. Looking at the museum through the eyes of 2016 and beyond, and for me, I just see endless possibilities.

Do you the mission of the museum has changed during that time?
I think the mission is the same, but I think how you execute and implement that mission has changed. If you just look at how much technology has changed. When we opened, we didn’t have a Facebook page, or a Twitter or Instagram account. When we opened, our children didn’t have access to all of that either, and their methods of learning have changed based on technology. We now need to have the same vision and mission, but we need to figure out how to do it in the context of where we are today.

Have you thought through any specific ideas?
We’re looking particularly at our permanent collection, because that’s where our history lies, and asking how we make that come alive. We’re identifying specific items in that collection and figuring out how we tell their stories. Will there be tablets, will there be an app, will there be videos? One of the things I just looked at that’s a cool idea is we would get a hologram built of Reginald Lewis that would tell his story because his story is so relevant, even today. I had some friends of mine from a technology center in New York come in and they said it could be done, but building it is going to cost $300,000, not including the computerization. So, that’s something we can work towards, not something we can do now. But I’m thinking about when VHS tapes first came out and how much VHS players and recorders cost, and I’m thinking eventually, holograms are going to cost a lot less, too.

You’ve talked about the permanent collection, and how you want to make that an emphasis of the museum. How do you envision that taking place?
We think the third floor will continue to showcase the permanent collection. We want to make sure that the permanent collection stays preserved, and help people understand and share the excitement of the permanent collection because that will always be our history, that will not change. Looking at that history, we can make that relevant.

Are there any particular items that you would like to see displayed that aren’t now?
I know that we have an extensive African-American art collection, and our curator definitely thinks we have enough to put together an exhibit. We have Billie Holliday’s piano—how great would it be to build a collection around that?

After Freddie Gray’s death, you held events and exhibits that furthered the discussions of race and the role of law enforcement in the city. How do you see balancing the historical collection while also addressing what’s happening in the city now?
We have one of the greatest advantages in that we have 82,000 square feet. We have lots of space to address current and relevant issues and maintain our history in our permanent collection. We should own some of these issues. For instance, we’ve had conversations with the police commissioner about having cadets come here and learn about some of the African-American community’s [cultural differences]. The museum is a safe haven where you can discuss ideas. If you try to have that discussion in a particular community, people may not want to go to that community, or to the police department. But we’re neutral territory.

That kind of work seems that it’s very much on the front lines of current events, and other museums and institutions don’t share that approach.
We should own some of these issues. For instance, we’ve had conversations with the police commissioner about having cadets come here and be trained and learn some of the nuances of dealing with the African-American community. You have lots of people who have no experience dealing with the African-American community, and there are very subtle nuances that may be an affront that either side would know.

[The museum] is a safe haven where you can discuss ideas. Because sometimes if you try to have that discussion or in a particular community, you may not be able to get people to cross that line—they may not want to go to that community, or to the police department. But we’re neutral territory.

Are you looking to increase your resources?
Right now we have good staff people who have been here a long time. We have other resources other than hiring staff, and I think it would be more collaborative, because we do have to be fiscally responsible. Ideally, I’d like to bring in all these exhibits, I’d like to bring in more staff, I’d like to have a chief of operations, I’d like to have that hologram. But then reality sets in, and one of my strengths is the business side and I those things we want to do will really not generate the revenue to cover the cost. And like any business, if you aren’t doing that, you can’t do it.

So I really have to put on my reality hat and say this is the size of the pot, and then look creatively and see how we can maximize the pot. I want to have an east coast seminar on entrepreneurship for our African-American college students. I don’t really have to have someone on staff for that, I have entrepreneurs who will help me do that.

I’m sure you’re looking to increase the pot.
I would love to. Everybody wants to increase the pot [laughs]. We are bringing in a development director, we are looking to increase our corporate and our individual and family memberships, we are looking to increase our retail sale operation. We’re hoping to generate more foot traffic into the museum, which would increase our café revenue. We’re hoping more people come and rent this facility, which would also give us exposure. There’s this awesome Harriet Tubman exhibit that we really, really wanted. But right now, until we raise the money for that exhibit, we can’t have it. That doesn’t mean we won’t get that exhibit, because, you know, my beg hat is big. And I’m new so I don’t know any better. My theory is you can only say two things, yes or no. If I don’t ask, you want say anything.

What are your thoughts on your attendance? Has it grown?
Our pattern is weekends are better, and we want to make them even better. The capacity of this building is significant. We do get most of our attendance on the weekends, and we are extending invitations to schools to have kids come in during the day. This is a building that can be used pretty much all day and half the night, so we’d like to see school kids and regular museum visitors in here during the day. We love what we see on weekends, but also we’d like to see visitors using this building in the evening after we’re closed.

Our initial projections were that we would have 100,000 people a year in this building. Then the economic downturn happened. We are now working back toward that. Now, it’s about 30,000 to 35,000 a year. And I would like to see 20,000 school kids come here in 2017—right now we have a little less than 10,000. I think this is the time for it to happen, because one of the things the new National Museum of African American History and Culture [in Washington] has done is create interest in African-American museums. People go there and get interested, or go there and can’t get in [because it’s been so popular], and then come here.

The Lewis museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, and your former curator is now on the staff of the new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. Do you anticipate that there will be collaboration between the two institutions?
We’re looking at sharing exhibits, items, information, expertise. . . . I think there’s a larger audience that hasn’t experienced this museum than those who have. And with the addition of the African-American history museum, more people know what it is. If you’re going to the children’s museum, or the streetcar museum, you know what it is. But what is African-American culture, and who is Reginald Lewis? There are a lot more questions about this and now, people will have more of a vision of what to expect when they do come. And that makes all the difference in the world.