In the early ’90s, while nearing the end of his life, Reginald F. Lewis, a successful businessman and one of the wealthiest African American men in the country, envisioned the construction of an educational center in the heart of downtown Baltimore City that could illuminate future generations about the remarkable history of African American art and culture in Maryland.
Lewis died before his dream could be manifested.
But in 2005, The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation received a $3.6 million endowment from the state to establish an operating budget for the vision that would eventually become the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, an 82,000-square-foot building designed by Gary Bowden and the late, prolific architect Philip Freelon. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum was the first notable building designed for the Baltimore Inner Harbor by African American architects.
Nearly 19 years after breaking ground in 2003, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum’s permanent collection has gathered more than 10,000 objects that each shed light on the significance of African American contributions to the state. The museum has also collaboratively stewarded numerous campaigns to support legislation that rightly historicizes Black lives, including House Bill 307, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In 2006, in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education, the museum also designed a K-12 statewide curriculum entitled, “An African American Journey: A Resource for Learning the History of African Americans in Maryland and the United States.” The museum has since lost its contract with education department to implement the curriculum throughout the state.
The museum has devised innumerable strategic plans to fulfill its charge to increase service, resources, and community engagement in Baltimore and around the state, but has had difficulty realizing those goals. Despite a collective desire among many to see the museum fulfill its potential, it remains a relatively unknown, chronically understaffed and untapped resource in the region.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is managed by the Maryland African American Museum Corporation, a public instrumentality and independent unit of the state executive branch, comprised of a 37-member board of directors who manage the corporation’s affairs. Multiple requests to speak with members of the museum’s board for this story went unanswered.
The museum receives a $2 million budget annually from the state and is required to match that funding through the acquisition of external grants, donations or in-kind services. To date, the museum has struggled to consistently match state funding with other financing.
High staff turnover has likely compounded the museum’s financial woes. Since its conception, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum has had six executive directors, coupled with chronic understaffing and notable critiques about the corporation’s capacity to lead a sustainable strategy to realize its institutional goals.
In 2020, Terri Lee Freeman became the seventh executive director to take the helm at the struggling but hopeful institution. Freeman brings to the museum the expertise she garnered during her six-year tenure as the president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and a strong fundraising history. She was preceded by Jacqueline Copeland, who acted as executive director for 18 months before she was asked to vacate the position. To date, former staff say they are unclear about why Copeland was asked by the board of directors to resign from her position.
“I think that what has been a challenge for the museum, honestly, has been stability, having stable leadership both from a governance perspective and from a staffing perspective,” Freeman said. “The hope and the expectation is that I’ll be here for a little while, and I do feel like the museum is beginning to get its footing. Part of that is because, you know, when I came into the museum last February, I knew the first thing I had to do was hire some staff.”
“I did not really have a team of senior leaders who could really lead the areas and move the museum forward,” she continued. “I was able to complete that hiring at the end of ’21. So, we moved into ’22 with a full complement of a senior staff. Now they’re in the process of hiring people who will fill out their departments. Now that we have this compliment of senior leaders, we’re able to put together our strategic plan, and that will drive all the rest of our work over the course of the next five years.”
Two former Lewis staff members, who opted to remain anonymous out of concern for jeopardizing their careers in Baltimore’s small museum circuit, believe a lack of effective programming and struggles with establishing a true identity is stunting the museum’s evolution.
“When [the Lewis Museum] opened there was a lot of hope and energy around it as an institution and as a building in Baltimore City that was focused on the African American experience in Maryland,” said one former staffer. “I think that its failure to realize their hope and desires stem foremost from the institution struggling with clarity about its own identity — whether it is a history-focused museum or an art museum, and how those things coalesce into a communication of culture, and I don’t think that [the museum] has ever done that well.”
“One of the issues that we struggled with while I was there was a lack of energy around creating programming that was geared towards a non-baby boomer audience,” another former Lewis employees said. “Gen Z, millennial, and more diverse in terms of race or sexual orientation. How to speak to non-persons of color and how to program for allyship are things we struggled with.”
In 2021, for the first time in the institution’s history, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum received a capital grant from the state to invest in what Freeman described as “a freshening up of some of our systems.” Those improvements will enable the museum to expand its programming to include livestreaming capabilities and to update its infrastructure to attract younger generations.
“My hope and my intention is that the museum is at the very beginning of a trajectory that is going to not just make Baltimore proud, but is going to make the state of Maryland proud with regard to what we have to show the public,” Freeman added.
The Lewis Museum Permanent Collection exhibition has not changed since the museum opened. Still, their special exhibitions have featured 12 well-received shows that centered on African American art, history, or culture, including “Elizabeth Catlett: Artists As Activist”; “Make Good Trouble: Marching for Change”; “Linda Day Clark: The Gee’s Bend Photographs”; and “Romare Bearden: Visionary Artist.”
The most recent exhibition, “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.,” which runs through Sunday, profiles “the revolutionary men — including Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, W.E.B. Du Bois and Kendrick Lamar — whose journeys have altered the history and culture of the country.” Freeman is hopeful that more intergenerational representation will invigorate broader interest in the museum.
“‘Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.’ is a traveling exhibit with the Smithsonian Institution, and it provides what I call a positive narrative of African American men and their contributions to this society, despite what this society has done to African American men,” said Freeman. “It’s a beautiful exhibit, and it’s the first time it’s been shown in its full complement on the East Coast because nobody else has had enough space to show the whole thing, and we do! It’s that caliber of exhibit that I intend to have the museum become known for.”
The museum is embarking on a capital campaign to help them renovate the third floor where The Lewis Museum Permanent Collection resides. Freeman notes that the grant will help the institution bring its collection to 21st century standards by “using more technology, more interactivity, and by having more up-to-date storytelling.”
“There has been a lot of history that has occurred since 2005,” Freeman continued, “not just in Maryland but with Black folks around the country. So, we want to include that information as well.”
Community members and former staff have voiced longstanding concerns about what they believe to be a history of failed community outreach strategies to consistently and effectively reach constituencies in and beyond Baltimore City.
“Part of the problem is that [the Lewis] is such a small institution, a physically big building, but the staff is small,” one of the former Lewis staff members said. “So, when you have a change in leadership, it changes the focus of the entire museum. If you were developing relationships but have a new director, those relationships are no longer the focal point and the connections they come and they go. There isn’t a lot of stamina to keep those conversations and relationships strong.”
Other former Lewis employees have also noted that though the institution was created as a statewide Museum of African American art, history and culture, it is assumed to be a Baltimore-centric entity. This presumption is exacerbated by modest outreach efforts that rarely reach African American communities across the state or articulate the distinct histories those communities have experienced, the former staff members said. This disparity in representation poses important questions about whether viewing audiences are engaged in well-rounded assessments about African American experiences in Maryland.
“I think the education and curatorial team struggled with how to diversify representations of the Black experience,” one of the former Lewis employees said. “It’s important to communicate to the audience that slavery and civil rights are not all of what Blackness is. There is a struggle to create a nuanced vision of what it means to be Black in America.”
In 2020, Freeman hired a third-party consultant to conduct stakeholder focus groups and a series of interviews with community members to gauge the direction they want to see the museum take to better serve the community. Each stakeholder focus group was represented by community volunteers, board members, museum professionals, and regional nonprofit organizations. The interviews were conducted over two consecutive months in 2020. Representatives of the Reginald declined to share the consultant report, but Freeman gave some details.
“All of the groups emphasized the fact that museums are necessary for Black communities as a trusted source of information and education and as a safe space,” Freeman said. “They [also] felt that is what the Lewis could be [and] they felt that overall, the museum had done some good exhibits.”
Among the questions posed by the stakeholder focus group was whether the museum would privilege art and culture, focus on history, or continue to exhibit a blend of both in its rotating schedule. Most responses indicated that diversity in exhibition topics was essential and that showcasing inclusive African American histories that shed light on unsung populations, including LGBTQ+ communities, was also important.
“That, for me, was the biggest takeaway of all of the stakeholder interviews because they all talked about this need for us to tell the story, but in a way that everyone is a part of the story,” Freeman added.
Stakeholders also noted that the permanent exhibition was outdated, and they were unlikely to visit or encourage others to visit it until renovations took place. Other focus group participants shared that they were not informed about art, culture, or history exhibitions at the museum and had only attended the museum for events facilitated by outside organizations that rented space.
After reviewing the third-party groups findings, Freeman and her team drafted a new strategic plan that she says is informed by community feedback and clearly outlines the museum’s imperatives, mission, values and goals over the next five years. To date, the strategic plan has not been finalized or released to the public.
“It’s important that people understand that a strategic plan can be a very dynamic document [but] who could have planned for COVID?” Freeman noted. “The museum had a plan, but everybody’s plan kind of went out the window when COVID came.”
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economic well-being of individuals, small businesses, and cultural and educational institutions. In 2020, when admission fees and donations came to a standstill, revenues for the museum fell by nearly $1.4 million. If not for the Maryland Strong Economic Recovery Initiative, an emergency economic relief award totaling more than $8 million issued by Gov. Larry Hogan, the museum may have permanently shuttered. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum was one of 32 tourism-related nonprofits in Maryland to receive the award. With that support and new fundraising efforts, Freeman is confident that with time the museum can become a stable and influential institution.
“I believe that within five years time, we will be able to say we have a solid foundation, and who knows where we go from there. We want to increase outreach, strengthen strategic partnerships with special attention to Maryland school districts, academic institutions, faith communities, artists, and local communities,” Freeman said. “If people feel like they’re not welcomed to the institution, then we’ve got a lot of work to do in making sure that people do feel welcomed. I want to make sure anybody who walks through this place says, ‘Wow, that was a great experience.’”
Angela N. Carroll is a Baltimore-based writer and curator
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