Fundraising Path Leads Wagar to Crystal Bridges

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 487 views 

Jill Wagar is in her sixth year working at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, and going to work every day as a representative of a renowned American art museum is never far from her mind.

“I actually think about it every single day, what a privilege it is to be a part of our vision, and also the vision for Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “I don’t take it for granted one second. The opportunity to work here is humbling and exhilarating.”

Wagar, who joined the museum as a corporate relations manager nine months before it opened in November 2011, was appointed to the position of chief strategy officer one year ago. It was her third promotion in less than five years.

As a member of the Crystal Bridges executive team focused on overall policy, Wagar leads the museum’s strategic planning process and aligns those plans with philanthropic resources to get the best out of their impact in the long-term.

In other words, she has been given the opportunity to combine corporate-minded business in a nonprofit world, a field she has excelled in while working in the fundraising arena for more than 20 years.

“I enjoy the mixture of those two things,” she said. “It just seems like my path has led me to where I am supposed to be at this moment.”

Wagar was 34 when recognized by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal as a Forty Under 40 honoree in 2008. After spending seven years in public affairs and development for The Children’s Center, a private nonprofit hospital for children in Bethany, Oklahoma, she was hired in 2005 by Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville as associate vice president for development.

She wasted no time in rising to the top of her field. Wagar, a Certified Fundraising Executive, oversaw a $16 million capital campaign and helped secure the two largest gifts in NWACC history.

The success got her noticed, and brought her to a difficult decision in her professional career.

“I loved working at the college, and the impact it was making in the community was really important,” she explained. “But when Crystal Bridges reached out to me, I could see the impact [the museum] was going to make. It was really an important shift in my career, going from more of a regional, local institution to a national and international institution. The people here that I’ve gotten to work with and the opportunities that have been afforded to me are just absolutely remarkable.”

Wagar, who has held the titles of director of development and director of advancement in her Crystal Bridges tenure, said frequent travel is a requirement of her job, both domestically and abroad. She said hearing people around the world talk about the museum and the growing profile of Bentonville is inspiring.

 “We love to see the museum through new eyes, through our visitors’ experience,” she explained. “When we talk to people around the world about the museum and the impact it’s making, and then to connect that circle when they get the chance to come and see it for themselves, that is really a great moment.”

Crystal Bridges will mark its fifth anniversary in November, but Wagar said there isn’t any sort of “big splash” planned. A more important objective is the continued strategy development for the museum’s expansion into a former Kraft Foods plant in downtown Bentonville.

The 63,000-SF space, scheduled to open in early 2019, is a couple of miles south of Crystal Bridges and will house contemporary art, as well as performance venues for music, film and theater and artist residencies. Although Crystal Bridges has always collected contemporary art, the new space will build on the success of its 2014-2015 exhibition, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.”

Wagar and her husband (she describes both as foodies) have a daughter who is a high school senior and a son in the eighth grade. They enjoy time spent outdoors, especially traveling.

As for the next stop on her career path, Wagar said there are too many exciting things on the horizon to think about leaving the museum.

“My heart is invested in the middle of what we are doing now, and there is so much to accomplish that I see myself staying put for a while,” she said.