Susan Mendenhall

Why the arts are important

Susan Mendenhall, photography by Neal Bruns

Susan Mendenhall’s journey to the top at Arts United did not come at the end of a paintbrush or by the bow of a violin, but via the crowded streets of Bogotá, Colombia, and the love of a good man from Harlan. Find out how she ended up in Fort Wayne and what her secret talent is as we play 20 Questions.

1. Why are the arts important?
The arts bring vibrancy to individual lives and to our community. They ensure our community brings in a talented workforce.

2. What appeals to you about the arts?
I think they’re fun! They make life in Northeast Indiana worth living.

3. Are you artistic yourself?
I would not describe myself as an artist. I’ve dabbled. I played violin, and I’ve taken oil painting classes and do that from time to time, but not well.

4. What do you wish more people realized about the arts?
Many things! How many activities there are to explore in our community. I wish our community would know how many exciting opportunities there are, … and if they did (realize that) they’d get their swagger back.

5. What’s your secret talent?
I make the world’s best oatmeal-chocolate no-bake cookies.

6. Tell us about living in Bogotá. Why were you there?
My husband, Derek, was born and raised there (though his family is from Harlan), and we had the opportunity to work with his family’s company. We didn’t have a house, we didn’t have a goldfish and we (thought it would be an adventure). It’s a beautiful, vibrant community of 9 million people. It’s incredibly cosmopolitan and yet quaint at the same time. It was really fun to experience another culture.

7. Where is somewhere else you’d  like to travel?
I’d love to explore the Mediterranean, and I’d love to see Istanbul. It’s such a fusion of East meets West.

8. What’s the best part of  fundraising?
Sharing with (donors) how their gift has made an impact.

9. You spent several years fundraising for first the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and then at Arts United before becoming the executive director. What’s the hardest part of fundraising?
I don’t find it hard. The hardest part is to utilize your time to build relationships to really make an impact. Working with a donor is fun. You’re giving them the opportunity to support something they love.

10. How do the arts contribute to economic development?
The arts equip our community with the quality of life that attracts and retains a talented workforce.

11. How does Arts United contribute to the fabric of Fort Wayne and the region?
Sometimes we are the facilitator, sometimes we are the champion, sometimes we are the funder. Our role is pretty unique: we are a funnel of ideas and a connector of resources.

12. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Bob Putnam. He’s the foremost thinker of social capital and the author of “Bowling Alone.” He talks about how the ability of a community to connect and meet has economic value and makes a community more prosperous … (and) how you create the spaces in a community to meet … and share ideas and do it in civil ways.

13. What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
Taking a cab in Bogotá, Colombia, for the first time by myself. It wasn’t as bad as you’d think.

14. What are you listening to these days?
I have a group called Salsa Celtica. It’s a fusion between salsa music and Celtic instruments. You’ll be dancing all day!

15. What is your greatest strength?
I have the courage to try it out. I don’t back down because of my inexperience or my worry about doing it well.

16. What’s the best lesson you’ve ever learned?
My dad, Bill Engle, is an incredible example of humility despite being a leader in his job and his field. He always has an air of service. He always seeks to serve others, and I try to emulate that.

17. How are you different from former Arts United head Jim Sparrow?
Jim was such a fabulous mentor, and his vision fundamentally changed downtown. What I bring to the table in a different way is (that I) try to connect vision with implementation, and that’s what’s really fun.

18. If you could be invisible for one day, where would you go?
My daughter, Claire’s, daycare and see what she does all day.

19. How would you want the world to be different because you’ve lived in it?
I would love the world to be connected, that people would value and connect with their neighbors not just through social media, but through a true community gathering space.

20. What excites you?
I love hearing ideas. I love hearing people’s passion about what they’re doing. I get to help people make (those ideas) happen, and this community is full of great ideas.

First appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.


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