Creating a platform for grassroots artists in Fort Wayne

About 40 years ago, a then-Fort Wayne resident Bruce Linker wanted a change of pace in life.

He was in his early 20s at the time and working at the former International Harvester plant in Fort Wayne.

Despite not having previous experience as an artist, Linker had an interest in seeing the arts thrive across the city.

“I wanted to make it a part of my life,” he says.

With this in mind, he came up with the idea to start an art gallery of sorts for local artists in Fort Wayne, so they had somewhere to showcase their work. At the time, local art museums in northeast Indiana were largely reserved for well-known, big-name artists across the region or beyond. But Linker saw the importance of giving less traditional, local artists the freedom and platform to exhibit their work in Fort Wayne, too.

So he started an art gallery out of his apartment downtown. The idea was simply to help budding artists reach their goals and to inspire more creative expressions around town.

“I hoped for it to be a stepping stone for young adults in Fort Wayne,” Linker says.

In the past four decades, his humble gallery space has been more than a stepping stone—it’s developed into the nonprofit organization, known as Artlink, which connects grassroots artists to opportunities in the regional community and beyond.

While Artlink refines its mission every few years to reflect the evolving needs of its community, its work centers around investing in opportunities for diverse visual artists in Fort Wayne and engaging the regional community through exhibitions, innovation, and arts education.

Since Linker didn’t have any experience running a gallery in the early years, he sought the help of others around him, like college art professors, to get the project off the ground. He also made the bold choice to let local artists run the gallery themselves. He reasoned that this “hands-off” approach would help artists have even more freedom to express themselves and learn what it takes to organize a successful exhibition.

After occupying several spaces downtown over the years, Artlink’s gallery space and operations have settled at its current location as part of the downtown Arts Campus at the Auer Center for Arts & Culture—not far from Linker’s original apartment.
Here, Artlink has a gallery space twice the size of its former location, as well as a classroom studio for figure drawing and other creative programming, a digital arts studio, and offices. That’s because, in addition to providing gallery space to artists, the organization also offers learning opportunities and advocates for grassroots artists in Fort Wayne and beyond.

But while Artlink has grown and evolved over the years, Linker is proud to say that it is still fulfilling his initial vision of bringing more art to all of Fort Wayne and cultivating a more community-owned creative spirit in the city.

For him, the ongoing success of the organization comes down to a few simple traits.

“Having a positive attitude, doing good, and not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” he says.

Even so, he admits that he never could’ve imagined his small gallery lasting more than four decades. Growing and sustaining a successful nonprofit that supports artists is no small feat, Linker notes. Some of the challenges Artlink has faced over the years include employment and finding the right staff to maximize the impact of the organization.

Linker himself moved to South Haven, Mich., in 1986, leaving the organization he started behind. But he still checks in on Fort Wayne and Artlink as often as he can and provides assistance as needed.

He says that he trusts the organization’s current Executive Director, Matt McClure, and its staff to carry out the legacy of what he started.

“The Artist Panel, the directors, and the panel of directors fulfill the needs of artists, and this is the basic structure of how it should be run,” Linker says.

Since McClure became Executive Director of Artlink in 2016, he has led the organization in creating an innovative residency incubator program for artists called Artlink 212, which pairs up-and-coming artists with national experts in their craft for mentorship to complete projects and network.

The program is open to creatives of all media types—from comic book illustrators to web designers to software developers. In addition to offering creative studio space at Artlink’s location in downtown Fort Wayne, the program is also run online, which allows creators anywhere to turn their ideas into opportunities—regardless of geographic or economic limitations.

Artlink also offers several Open Arts programs for the Fort Wayne community, bringing creatives together to sketch, participate in figure drawing sessions, and attend other workshops and conferences throughout the year.

From McClure's standpoint, one of the most exciting things the organization has accomplished to date is maintaining and extending Linker's vision for an equitable, open arts platform in Fort Wayne.

"In keeping with Bruce’s original vision, the most significant thing we set in motion back in early 2017 was the opening up of our exhibition process to any artist, at any stage in their creative journey who is willing to submit an exhibition proposal," McClure says. "This way, exhibitions aren't based on who you know, but they are open to all artists in our creative community."

Proposals for exhibitions are reviewed and approved by Artlink's Artist Panel.

In the fall of 2019, Artlink is becoming even more inclusive by transforming its hallway gallery space into an exhibition exclusively for high school and college students. This way, students can go through the same processes that established artists go through when participating in an exhibition, receiving assistance and mentoring from Artlink's gallery team.

It’s these types of creative-first ideas that have been driving Artlink’s success from day one. And when it comes to the future of Fort Wayne’s creative community, Linker has one simple wish.

“I hope it just continues to grow,” he says. “Having a strong art community is an added value to the community.”

This story is part of a partnership between Artlink and inputfortwayne.com, focused on reporting about catalytic talent shaping "what's next" for northeast Indiana's art scene.
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