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Making the Brand

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum Celebrates Surviving Its First Year On Pratt Street

Jefferson Jackson Steele
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES: Lewis Museum head David Taft Terry acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead for the fledgling institution

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 6/21/2006

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum celebrates its first anniversary June 24.

Visit for more details.

The June 2005 opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture marked the dawn of Baltimoreís great black hope: an 82,000-square-foot goliath dedicated to seeing the African-American experience recognized and told as integral parts of both this city and nation. Baltimoreans and visitors from across the country bought 4,000 tickets for the June 25, 2005, opening--before the museumís doors ever opened. Not only was the museum housed in a striking modern building designed by black architects, it was named for and partly funded by Baltimore native Reginald F. Lewis--the man heralded as the most successful African-American businessman. Finally, one grand place could serve as the cultural Mecca for Marylandís black people.

This month the Lewis turns 1 year old, its leadership surviving 12 long months of unexpected challenges. Organizational turnover has stalled the museumís development of a cohesive mission vision. The opening of its distance-learning and oral-tradition labs to the public have been delayed by a year. The obstacles that come with operating any new museum--equal parts business and cultural institution--are the most pressing, though: keeping an existing client base coming back and attracting new customers to a permanent collection that isnít the great new wonder it was when it debuted. Most important, however, is shaping and clearly elucidating its identity to the community it aims to serve. Just what role does the Reginald F. Lewis Museum envision for itself--a repository for cultural history? Showcase for contemporary and historical African-American art? Community hub for cultural events and lectures and educational programs? Some combination of all of the above? It isnít entirely clear, nor is how the museum plans on establishing that public face.

Its staff recognizes the arduous road ahead. "The energy that it takes to get you to the point where youíre opening has to be repeated tenfold," admits David Taft Terry, the museumís executive director. "You get open, and now you have to stay open."

Terry was named to his post in April following the March departure of former executive director Sandy Bellamy; Terry served previously as the museumís director of exhibits and collections. Only 36, he bristles with excitement as he talks about the tasks ahead. His staffís median age is 39-40; they are young, full of energy, and believe in the promise of this startup institution. "It takes a lot out of you to work at this pace and level with the expectations that we have [of ourselves]," he says. "But one thing weíve always understood on this staff is if you ever feel sorry for yourself about how hard it is to work and what life is about, go walk around downstairs and youíll see people who overcame a lot more and who you owe everything to."

That the Lewis Museum testifies to what African-Americans have achieved is without question. Less sure is what the Lewis aims to do with its future.

Terry contends that one of the museumís primary successes is its mere existence. Telling the story of historically significant black Marylanders such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the same museum with photographs of little-known black farmers from across the country is a particularly valuable history lesson that rounds out the totality of the African-American experience.

"History is a not a quick read," Terry says. "It has nothing to do with names and dates. Itís more about concepts and large processes we go through as people on this planet, how billions of subtle stories contribute to that large movement."

One of the Lewisí goals is to eventually become the largest museum of African-American history and culture in the country. Right now, Detroitís Charles H. Wright Museum is. Founded in 1965, the Wright Museum opened in its current home--a $43 million, 120,000-square-foot building--in 1997.

One of the hurdles a brand-new or relocated museum faces is visitor drop-off over its first few years of operation. "The first year, we opened, we had an excess of 200,000 visitors" says Tyrone Davenport, the Wright Museumís interim president and CEO. "And the second year it was probably right around 200,000. How do you keep people coming back?"

The Wright Museum attracts repeat visitors by refreshing its exhibitions and programs, such as a Juneteenth program started last year. The Lewis Museum also has an active events calendar that draws visitors to evening programs--such as the First Fridays music series. What the Wright Museum offers that the Lewis currently doesnít is a more active rotating exhibition strategy. The Wright has three special exhibits that change every four to six months.

The Lewis Museum has one second-floor special exhibition gallery that does change, Terry says, on an average of every six months; the current visiting show is Distant Echoes, a photography exhibition of the black farmer in America. Thirty percent of the Lewisí permanent collection is exhibited in the museumís permanent exhibition space and is slated to stay installed until 2020.

Elements of the permanent collection "rotate to varying degrees when things are collected or when pieces are found that speak more to the point of a particular exhibition space," Terry says, noting a small section of the Strength of the Mind portion of the permanent exhibition that rotates every four to six months. Last year the Mind gallery housed works by self-trained African-American artists first shown in a 1930s Baltimore Museum of Art show that drew thousands of people from then-segregated Baltimore to the nonsegregated BMA. Currently, the space shows local black artist Joseph Holston.

The quality and extent of the Lewisí collections and exhibitions are so vital because, on the very basic business level, itís what the museum sells. And it is extremely difficult for young, emerging museums to survive with but one product.

Fortunately, the Lewis formed an establishing endowment--a fund designed to supply exhibition items in perpetuity to the museumís collection--from its inception. The Wright only recently started one. The Wright has an annual operating budget of $6.5 million--the Lewisí annual operating budget is $4 million--and while the Wright museum raised the $43 million to build its new home by tapping city and government sources, "over the years as the economy and our ability to get donations and earned income goes up and down, we have no rainy-day fund, and nothing to fall back on," Davenport says. "So right now we have just started a significant effort to raise endowment funds."

At its opening, Lewis museum officials hoped that within the first year its endowment would double from the $5 million donated by the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation to $10 million from funds raised from the community. Another target was reaching dues-paying membership of 20,000. According to its membership department, the museum currently has 2,500 paid memberships.

Terry says the museum canít merely rely on its endowment to sustain itself. This past fiscal year the state of Maryland supported 75 percent of the museumís $4 million budget (the museum supplied $1.3 million of its budget). Over the next fiscal year (June 30, 2006-July 1, 2007) the stateís contribution to the museumís budget drops to 50 percent, which means that the Lewis needs to supply $2 million.

Other Baltimore cultural centers are watching every penny, too. Formed in 1797 as the Maryland Academy of Sciences, the Maryland Science Center moved to its current 100,000-square-foot building on Light Street in 1976, and underwent a $35 million major capital expansion from 2002 to í04. "Weíre watching every penny," says Van Reiner, the Science Centerís president and CEO. The Maryland Science Centerís annual operating budget is just under $10 million. "After we get that [expansion] paid off, we will be doing well."

It took years to become a destination cultural center that more than 400,000 people visit annually, and establishing and maintaining the Science Centerís cultural identity is an ongoing operation. "I am not sure that a vibrant institution can [ever] really find its place, because that place keeps changing as society changes," Reiner says.

In the Maryland Science Centerís case, it has to respond to changes in technology. "You canít rest on your laurels for one day," Reiner says. "You always have to think about what you have to do differently tomorrow."

Prior to the Lewisí 2005 opening, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum was Baltimore Cityís only museum dedicated solely to African-American history and culture. Joanne Martin and her husband, Elmer Martin, established the museum in July 1983. And what keeps visitors coming back, she says, is the emotional chord the museum strikes when visitors see, for example, people enslaved on a slave ship immortalized in wax.

"Our visitors enter a museum that makes them feel something," Joanne Martin says. "Our museum doesnít allow for passivity about slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws that were designed to dehumanize."

Even so, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum has had to work hard to maintain its community presence. "In 1983 we were the new kid on the block," Martin says. "We were a novelty because we were the first black history wax museum in the nation. We were opening a path that had not been opened in a city that didnít even understand that there was an audience hungering for this.

"If you look at the competitive climate that exists today, there are more and more African-American history-focused museums that attempt to tell [our] story," Martin continues. "And if weíre going to continue to survive, that means weíre going to have to find more ways to come together to recognize [not only] our uniqueness but also our oneness."

While Great Blacks in Waxís reputation is renown, the Lewisí identity is still being formed in the public sphere. "People keep confusing us with the Great Blacks in Wax," says Nicole Shivers, the Lewis museumís public programs manager. "I donít know why that is."

Being the new institution in town is one reason. Not promoting and conveying a clear mission statement is another. According to its web site, the Lewis is "dedicated to sharing the courageous journeys toward freedom and self-determination made by African American Marylanders," and it hopes to be a place "to remember struggles, celebrate accomplishments, and serve as a beacon of pride, hope, and inspiration for all people." How the Lewis plans to achieve those goals aside from housing its permanent collection is unclear.

"For the next several years we will slowly but efficiently and confidently grow our reputation as a resource--a place where folks can come to either experience, to contribute to the interpretation of, or to draw on resources pertaining to the African-American experience in the state of Maryland," Terry says. "It wonít be easy, and it will also require that we stay on top of things."

Terry adds that his staff is dedicated to a five-year plan for "reassessing goals and producing and operating the premier African-American cultural institution in the state, if not in the nation, and understanding the ways in which we are going after that. You grow a museum by being mindful of the fact that the customerís experience is a top priority, and that your public programming and exhibitions are fresh."

But only the next five years will reveal just how he plans to do that. "Do I have an A-to-Z plan about how to make that happen? No I donít," Terry says. "But anybody in this business who tells you that they do are lying to you."

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