She wrote most of the grant proposals that raised the $2.2 million needed to purchase what is now the Auer Center for Arts and Culture, a hub for Fort Wayne's downtown cultural district.
Now, as new president of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, Susan Mendenhall stands at the center of the organization pushing that concept forward.
“I was really excited about the opportunity,” said Mendenhall, enthusiasm evident in her voice.
Mendenhall, who had served as Arts United's director of resource development since 2011, brings unique skills and experience to the new role she started Jan. 20: Along with a background in nonprofit management and fundraising, she is the first woman to lead Arts United, which was founded in 1955. At age 29, she also is its first leader from the millennial generation.
She guides a nonprofit whose membership includes 60 local and regional arts groups, for which Arts United supplies fundraising, management and financial planning support.
Arts United also owns and manages the Auer Center, 300 E. Main St.; Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.; and Hall Center for the Arts, 437 E. Berry St.
An Indianapolis native, Mendenhall moved to the area seven years ago and worked for a year in fundraising at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
She quickly picked up responsibilities and matured into the job, said J.L. Nave III, The Phil's president and CEO, who hired her.
“She's a great people person,” Nave added. “She is really sharp. She is perceptive. She is able to think of solutions that are not always evident to others.”
Mendenhall left The Phil when she and her husband had an opportunity to live for a year with some of his family in Colombia. While there, she worked part time for Arts United and helped write most of the grants that made it possible for the organization to buy the Auer Center, a former office building.
Nearly half of the money came in a $1 million donation from the local Edward D. and Ione Auer Foundation.
“In meetings we've had, she seems to have great ideas for collaboration with other community organizations, and that's always been important to the Auer Foundation,” said Katherine Moenter, the foundation's grants director.
With many arts groups struggling to attract young people to events, it also could be a plus to have a young person leading Arts United, Moenter said.
Mendenhall, who began working full time at Arts United after returning from Colombia, initially wasn't a candidate for the president's job.
She had assisted Arts United board members with the search process as they sought a successor for Jim Sparrow, the organization's former leader, who left last fall to head an arts council in North Carolina.
By the time board members narrowed the applicants to a few finalists, they had become so impressed with Mendenhall they asked her to consider applying for the job, Andy Boxberger, the board chairman, said previously. They liked her motivation, attention to detail, professionalism and other skills, Boxberger said.
Mendenhall said a few factors made the job attractive:
•She can use her background in nonprofit management and fundraising.
•She gets to help many other nonprofit organizations.
•Those organizations have significant impact on local community and economic development.
While denying she has any artistic talent, she said, “I do have a real appreciation for those who do.”
She also feels comfortable stepping into the president's job because she knows she has a strong team of staff and board members working with her.
“All around me, I have experts,” she said.
Mendenhall credits Sparrow for the vision that has helped position Arts United well for the future.
That vision includes the Auer Center, with occupants including Arts United's office, Artlink art gallery, Fort Wayne Ballet and Fort Wayne Trails, and a recently dedicated $1.6 million addition housing the ArtsLab black box theater, which is designed for innovative performances, exhibits and programming.
In the coming months, Mendenhall plans to focus much of her time on the main mission the board gave her — re-energize Arts United's annual fund drive.
The drive, which began its public phase in January, raises money to support Arts United, its facilities and its partner organizations. This year's goal is $1 million.
To help achieve the board's goal, she changed the responsibilities of her former job to that of director of development. She is interviewing candidates for the position, which will be “laser focused” on growing the annual fund drive.
Mendenhall plans to continue moving forward with efforts to create a downtown cultural district — an “arts-centric” neighborhood filled with galleries, public art, entertainment venues, creative businesses and more.
In addition, she wants Arts United involved in community discussions about potential development along Fort Wayne's rivers.
Entertainment and cultural activities build a greater sense of community and help attract and retain employees and businesses, she said.
“The vibrancy of our community is where we are at,” she added. “It's what we do.”