It started with a personal passion for art. It led to an internationally recognized art museum and a cornerstone of downtown Elkhart’s recovery.
As Jane Burns and her late husband, Dr. Richard Burns, built their collection of 19th and 20th Century American art, they quickly realized they weren’t satisfied with keeping the artwork to themselves. They wanted to share it with others. Initially, this urge led them to offer viewings in schools and other public settings. Eventually, though, they decided they wanted a more permanent means for sharing their collection.
“We decided we would open an art museum,” Burns says simply.
Of course, it was more complicated than that. First, in 1978, the Burnses talked with their lawyer about what it would take to create a nonprofit organization. Then they had to find a space. Their choice raised eyebrows: a long-vacant neo-classical bank building in a downtown that was in terrible shape.
It took more than a year to complete the building’s renovation, Burns says, and the process of convincing the community and its residents that a downtown art museum was a good idea continued after it opened its doors. City leaders offered little or no help, she says, and friends seemed more concerned than excited. But Jane and Richard stayed the course.
“Starting something new takes perseverance,” Burns says, “and you have to have vision, passion and a business plan.
”That combination certainly worked for the Midwest Museum of American Art’s. In the 35 years since it opened, art donations and acquisitions have allowed the museum to grow well beyond the couple’s personal collection.
With nine galleries spread over 25,000 square feet, the museum owns more than 3,000 works, including original paintings by Grant Wood, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell, and often attracts traveling exhibits. In 2007, the museum scored a coup by being the only Indiana museum asked to loan are to an exhibition touring China as a lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. The painting – Wood’s 1931 work “Sheaves of Corn” – also visited Shanghai and Moscow before returning to Indiana.
Now, more than three decades later, Jane Burns, who serves as volunteer director of the museum, continues to be driven by a passion for what could be. She sees downtown Elkhart as continuing to improve, and she expects it one day to be a true destination.
And why not? For a woman who built an art museum around passion and a personal collection, nothing is too big to dream about. “I believe so much in what we’re doing,” she says. “Cynics will talk it down, but we don’t listen. Each of us is hanging onto the vision of what we want, and that will sustain us.”
Director, Midwest Museum of American Art
Elkhart County, IN Entrepreneurs
"Starting something new takes perseverance and you have to have vision, passion and a business plan."