Like the late artist whose life’s work she oversees, Marilyn Wheaton sculpted a legacy of her own in the arts world.
Wheaton, longtime director of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum housed on SVSU’s campus, retired from the position in December 2018. Since her hiring in 2006, she oversaw a considerable expansion of the museum’s offerings, a substantial growth in attendance and a strategic outreach aimed at increasing community engagement with the facility. Her advocacy of Fredericks’s work — whose iconic creations include The Spirit of Detroit — reached far beyond the walls of the museum bearing his name.
“I have accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish here and more,” Wheaton said.
“There’s a big, wonderful world of art that I still want to be part of in some way, but I feel like I have done everything I can do here. It’s time for someone new to step in.”
Advocates of the museum said Wheaton established a beloved attraction for arts lovers and a strong foundation for the site’s future caretakers including her successor, Megan McAdow, who began as director in January 2019.
“Marilyn has worked tirelessly to promote both Marshall Fredericks’s museum and his life’s work,” said Donald Bachand, SVSU’s president. “The museum is a cultural gem in our community and a wonder of art in the eyes of the visitors who travel here from all across the world to see it. Without Marilyn, Fredericks’s work may not have the audience it deserves.”
Bachand was one of the officials who recruited and hired Wheaton, the third director to lead the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum that first opened on SVSU’s campus in May 1988. Wheaton was charged with developing the relatively young gallery into a mature institution with a firm footing in the community arts scene.
If attendance numbers are any indication, she succeeded. Before Wheaton was named director, about 10,000 people visited annually. Within a decade, the museum counted a record 18,000 visitors in a single year. Several factors contributed to the growth.
Wheaton led the assembly of a professional staff of experts in the visual arts, which enables the museum to provide a high level of service and education to its visitors. The museum archivist oversees the Marshall M. Fredericks Archive housed at the museum, and the collections manager is tasked with entering data on the more than 2,000 objects in the collection while ensuring the museum and sculpture garden are maintained.
Under Wheaton’s watch, the museum earned accreditation in 2013 from the American Alliance of Museums. The stamp of approval lent a legitimacy to the museum that allowed its operations to thrive among a supportive arts community, she said.
The opening in 2013 of the Jo Anne and Donald Petersen Sculpture Garden — which was the culmination of a five-year, $800,000 fundraiser that included a $500,000 donation from the garden’s namesake — was another important milestone in Wheaton’s legacy at SVSU. The garden features some of Fredericks’s largest sculptures cast in bronze.
Konnie Gill, chairperson for the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum Board of Advisors, said Wheaton’s dedication to the late sculptor’s works was unmatched.
“I’ve been a member of many boards over the years, and I’ve never met a director — of any type of nonprofit — who has given her life to the job in the way Marilyn has,” Gill said. “Marilyn is the most devoted person I have ever met. Her love for the Fredericks family, for Marshall’s work, for SVSU — she is the epitome of who anyone would want as a director.”
Wheaton’s relationship with Fredericks extended beyond her familiarity with his sculptures. She met the man years before his death in 1998. Before her arrival at SVSU, Wheaton was immersed in the Detroit arts scene, where she met Fredericks in his Royal Oak studio.
Early in her career, she was a research assistant at the Detroit Institute of Arts in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Later, she served as director of the City of Detroit’s Cultural Affairs Department and led Michigan’s first statewide arts advocacy organization, Concerned Citizens for the Arts in Michigan.
She and her husband never sold their home in Detroit, where she now lives after stepping down as director.
“I’m not leaving here to go to another job, but I’m confident there will be other opportunities that present themselves to me,” she said.
“I will be part of the Detroit arts community in some way. But I will miss my staff and all of the friends I’ve made at SVSU.”