Ward Foundation Celebrates 50 Years!

By Ursula Ehrhardt

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Ward Foundation. The Foundation’s principal founding purposes were “to create and maintain a memorial to Lem and Steve Ward and any other persons deemed to be outstanding in the field of wild life carving, art, and the conservation of natural resources and wildlife” and, through its exhibitions, to promote public interest in wildlife art and its relationship to the natural and cultural environment.

In October 1968, the Foundation sponsored its first exhibition, the Atlantic Flyway Wildfowl Carving and Art Exhibition, at the Salisbury Civic Center.  Lem and Steve Ward served as honorary chairmen. Their decoy and wildfowl carvings later became the nucleus of the Ward Museum’s permanent collection, though the Museum wasn’t founded until seven years later, in 1975.  This first exhibition, as well as the two that followed, focused primarily on “working decoys.” Hand-carved from wood by master craftsmen, such decoys were still in use by hunters who floated them on water to lure wildfowl.

In 1971, the Ward Foundation sponsored its first World Championship Carving Competition, attracting 148 carvers and 608 entries.  There were two principal categories: best “working decoy pair” and the best “decorative lifesize” carving, a category that refers to more detailed, realistic carvings made for display, rather than use in the hunt.  

The Foundation grew rapidly in the early 1970s, led by an active board that included artists, collectors, and local business leaders.  One of the board’s key goals, to have a museum, was realized when the Ward Foundation rented the south wing of Holloway Hall on the Salisbury State College campus. The Museum opened in 1976 with a collection that included 68 pieces by the Ward brothers.  Soon other carvers donated pieces and collectors began to loan works.

By 1979, the competition had become too large for the Civic Center, and was moved to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, where it is still held today.  In 2017, now called the Annual Ward World Wildfowl Carving Competition and Art Festival, it attracts more than 1,000 entrants who submit works for consideration. Coming from across the United States and 15 countries, they competed in various categories and divisions designating different levels of skills and experience, plus a youth category, sub-divided into three different age groups.

By the late 1980s, the Museum had outgrown its quarters on the University’s campus. In 1987, the Salisbury City Council voted to give the Foundation a waterfront site of 4.5 acres on Schumaker Pond to build a new museum and education center.  The Museum opened in 1991.

In the late 1990s, the Ward Foundation encountered increasing financial difficulties due, in part, to debt from the construction of the Museum and the rapid expansion of its collections, special exhibitions, and outreach programs. The eventual solution was to affiliate the Foundation with Salisbury University.  The Foundation transferred all its assets, including its Museum building and permanent collection, to the University, but continued to operate as an independent, non-profit organization under the University’s umbrella. It also continued to be responsible for managing the permanent collection, organizing exhibitions, planning special events, and providing educational activities and community outreach programs to its members and the wider public.  

The affiliation with Salisbury University has given the Foundation a more stable financial position and greater national visibility. Today, the Ward Museum is thriving, having been accredited by the American Association of Museums since 2011, a distinction only granted to about 4% of American museums.  Since 2000, the value of the permanent collection has increased from 3.7 million to 6.6 million dollars. The Museum reaches over 50,000 people annually.

The Museum has a professional staff of 12 full-time and 7 part-time members, assisted by two graduate students and six interns from Salisbury University.  In 2017, 698 volunteers provided 5,960 hours of service to the Museum, serving as gallery docents, and in a variety of duties related to numerous special events.

The Museum has 12,000 square feet of exhibition space, including several permanent exhibitions from its own collection, like the Ward Brothers Workshop, which replicates the original location in Crisfield, Maryland.  The “Decoy in Time” gallery documents the development of decoy carving from its Native American origins to its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when market hunters shot wildfowl by the hundreds of thousands.  The Henry Fleckenstein Decoy Study Gallery displays antique decoys from different regions of North America. Wall-sized maps show flyways or migration paths and includes an open “study library” with a collection of books related to decoys and gunning clubs.

The World Championship gallery contains prize-winning works from the annual World Wildfowl Carving Competitions.  Works in this gallery are primarily decorative carvings that are highly detailed and realistic in style, often showing a bird or pair of birds in action with details from their environment.

The LaMay Gallery and the somewhat smaller Welcome Gallery, are devoted to temporary and traveling exhibitions, usually curated by the Ward’s curator/folklorist or a guest curator, and generally complement the Ward’s permanent collection and education programs.  Other exhibitions are natural history or cultural surveys that explore topics relevant to the local and regional communities. Occasionally, the Museum will display solo shows by established artists who specialize in the representation of nature or wildlife. Museum visitors also enjoy the two films that are part of its permanent galleries, the museum’s waterfront nature trail, and Treetops Gifts of Art and Nature.

In addition to the annual carving competition every spring, the Museum hosts the annual Chesapeake Wildfowl Expo, at the Museum in the fall.  This event gives artists, collectors and vendors from across the region, an opportunity to buy, sell or trade an eclectic mix of antique and contemporary decoys, folk art, and collectibles related to wildfowl and hunting.  Competitions at Expo include the “’Old Birds’ Antique Decoy Competition” in which collectors enter antique decoys from their collections; and the “Contemporary Antique Competition” for carvers whose works emulate the form and style of antique decoys. The Annual Art in Nature Photo Festival is also held at the Museum each fall.  Other special events are related to the temporary exhibitions, including lectures, round-table discussions, and workshops.

The Museum has a variety of educational programs for both children and adults.  It sponsors a members’ wood-carving club at the Museum; and gives a group bird walk every Tuesday morning with the Museum’s education staff gathering data on the different species of migrating birds the data from which is sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where it can be accessed by researchers.  

The Ward has a wide range of programs for children, from pre-K through grade 12.  These programs use two published curricula, both of which are aligned with the “Common Core Standards,” as well as the “Next Generation Science Standards and Arts Integration” initiatives.

Other children’s educational programs include monthly, interdisciplinary programs for home-schooled children; a craft-based program that introduces toddlers and children, up to the age of 5, to nature; an arts and crafts program on the third Saturday morning of every month for families, various programs for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts that fulfill badge requirements, as well as summer art and photography camps.  The Museum’s various educational programs reached over 23,000 persons in its most recent fiscal year.

To better serve the area community, the Museum launched its “Soar to New Heights” Capital Campaign in 2014. To date, the Museum has completed several key projects including the John A. Luetkemeyer Sr. and Thomas F. Mullan Jr Legacy Center, a 2,200 foot, learning center and meeting space; the Sam Dyke Gateway to Outdoor Discovery, which connects to the Museum’s nature trails; and the Victor Oristano Meeting Room.

The Ward Foundation’s 50 years of excellence in art, nature and tradition have carried the legacy of Lem and Steve Ward to countless individuals and built a leading art, culture and educational facility that will benefit generations to come.