New Arts Council director hopes to bring stability after position turnover

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Murielle Wyman is the new executive director of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri. (Kristin Eberts)

In the summer of 2006, Murielle Wyman spent five weeks taking two courses in the Ivy League halls of Yale University.

Then 17 and between her sophomore and junior years of high school, Wyman suspected that the first class -- in international business -- would offer her an insightful glimpse of a future she'd planned in high finance.

She wasn't all that crazy about the other, she admits now, a throwaway art history course, one she only signed up for because the others she wanted were full.

"I was not looking forward to it at all," Wyman said. "As it turns out, I hated the international business class and the art history course was just incredible. I just fell in love with it. ... That was the summer that changed my whole mindset."

The ripple effects from that course, including attaining an art history degree from Vanderbilt University, have culminated with the 22-year-old Cape Girardeau native recently being hired as the executive director of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri.

As she prepared for tonight's annual meeting and fundraising benefit, Wyman said Tuesday she hopes to help bring stability, expanded programming and increased community involvement to the not-for-profit organization that is the oldest of its kind in the state.

If that happens, it would be good news for a council that has seen four executive directors in two years and suffered criticisms for what has been described as a narrow focus that centers on the visual arts to the detriment of the others.

The council also suffered some bad publicity in 2010 when a former administrative assistant pleaded guilty to stealing more than $13,000 from the arts council by illegally using a company credit card.

"The reputation maybe has taken a beating the last couple of years," Wyman said. "That's going to be one of the most important things for the success of this arts council, just having somebody who can build those relationships within the community and help it present itself to the community in a united and stable way."

If those goals are met, no one would be happier than Missouri Arts Council executive director Beverly Strohmeyer. Strohmeyer, who will be in attendance at tonight's event, served as the local executive director for 14 years until she left in 1997 to take a position with the state arts council.

The state arts council helps fund the local organization each year, providing $21,118 of its overall projected $150,000 budget for 2012. The rest of the money comes from members, donations, fundraising and grants. And Strohmeyer said she has a soft spot for the organization where she worked longer than anybody in the history of the agency.

But she's had concerns in recent years. She agreed that the recent turnover has been extreme. But, by her count, the arts council here has gone through 10 directors in the 14 years she's been gone.

"I'm not happy with the turnover they've had there at all," Strohmeyer said. "I'm hoping that's behind them and that they're moving forward and have someone now that will be able to lead the agency into their next 50 years."

For a time, she said, she was also disappointed in what she saw as too much emphasis on visual arts. She has even warned the local council that they were in danger of losing some of the funding, which comes because it qualifies as a "community arts council," which requires programming in more than one discipline.

"For awhile, the arts council in Cape Girardeau was almost totally visual arts," she said. "They kind of veered away from all the programming they did -- concerts, programs in the schools, a variety of things they could do. And they weren't doing them."

Since the warning, Strohmeyer said, the arts council is working on adding some additional programming to broaden its depth. Though it is still heavily geared toward visual arts, she said, the council is taking her recommendations into consideration.

The council's board, selected by its 250 or so members, is aware of these concerns and criticisms, said new chairwoman Lori Ann Kinder. Kinder understands them, agreeing that "nobody likes a lot of turnover."

But she countered that, when a situation needs to be corrected, it's the board's responsibility to step up and make a change. She said that's what happened when the board decided not to renew the one-year contract of the most recent executive director, Amy Pool.

"As much as we may not want to be perceived as a revolving door, for whatever reasons, we didn't have the right person in the position," Kinder said.

Now, Kinder and others hope to turn the page with Wyman's hiring. Wyman brings a lot to the position, Kinder said, including a relevant education that is partially art related, but also includes a minor in business.

The job description includes writing grants, organizing fundraisers, working to increase membership and coordinating the 130 events the council plans each year from art exhibitions to children's arts festivals and drawing groups according to the group's strategic plan.

Wyman's course load and extracurricular activities at Vanderbilt were rigorous and required successful time management and completed tasks, Kinder said. Wyman, the daughter of Cape Girardeau entrepreneurs John and Jerrianne Wyman, won out over two other finalists, Kinder said, and is a "perfect fit" for this job.

"In addition to that, she has a lot of social poise and charm," Kinder said. "That's important -- you interact with the public in this position."

Wyman will also be charged with working with the board to create more diversified programming, Kinder said. They already sponsor Poetry Out Loud and a children's arts festival that includes poetry as well as visual art. Kinder pointed out that tonight's fundraiser, to be held from 5 to 8 p.m. at SoutheastHEALTH's Cancer Center, will include a ballet performance by the St. Louis Ballet Theatre. Other programs involve live music and sculpture.

"We are definitely making moves toward that," Kinder said. "But I am very optimistic. I feel at the bottom of my heart we've got the right person in place."


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