Featherstone Center for the Arts, the nonprofit arts campus on a hilltop in Oak Bluffs, has a new executive director, after its board appointed Ann Smith to replace Francine Kelly at its annual general meeting last Wednesday.
Ms. Kelly, who has vastly expanded Featherstone’s programs and fundraising since arriving in 2003, asked the 18-member board in August for retirement effective Labor Day. She will stay on as a consultant to plan events to promote the center’s 15th anniversary next year.
Ms. Smith, who studied art history and economics, has been serving as assistant to the executive director and associate director at Featherstone for the past few years. She also is Ms. Kelly’s daughter.
“Really we don’t have a life,” Ms. Smith laughed, talking about the professional relationship she and her mother have shared since Ms. Smith moved to the Island full-time over three years ago. “All we talk about is Featherstone.”
Featherstone comprises six buildings on six acres nestled in the meadows and woods that were once a working farm and now are owned by the organization in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. The center has grown from a group with no premises to a year-round program with several studio, gallery and office spaces where exhibitions, classes, camps, sales, concerts and other performances take place.
Ms. Smith grew up in Indiana, where for 20 years her mother was director of programs for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, but she has spent summers on the Vineyard nearly all her life. During her time at the University of Michigan, however, she was a repeat summer intern at IBM. “My dream was to be a corporate art buyer,” Ms. Smith said. “Art is my love.”
Instead she graduated to a job in sales for IBM and then, when she decided corporate work was not for her, she taught computer science and became head of admissions and head of school at independent schools. Her technology knowledge eventually led the 43-year-old Ms. Smith to Featherstone.
“Mom was on about five years here when she realized she didn’t have the computer skills to manage and use the donor database and do the analysis and reports the board was asking for,” Ms. Smith. “I’m single, I have no kids, so it was an easy move to come to the Vineyard and help her out,” she said on her third day behind the executive desk. Her appointment was effective Monday.
“I’m not changing course; I believe strongly in the goals Francine had,” she said, adding that she was still getting used to being the final arbiter on decisions without Ms. Kelly around 12 hours a day. “But I still have her attention at breakfast and dinner.”
Board member Charles Harff, part of the three-person subcommittee charged with finding Ms. Kelly’s replacement, said Ms. Smith’s relationship to Ms. Kelly neither worked for nor against her. “We spent quite a bit of time looking at what we needed to succeed Francine Kelly,” Mr. Harff said. “We approached the process with an open mind.
“We defined what we were looking for,” he said, and the criteria included creativity, initiative, people skills and computer expertise. The board opted not to advertise or do a broader search for the arts center’s only full-time employee, a position that in 2008 carried a salary of about $65,000.
Ms. Kelly did recommend Ms. Smith to the board, but the new executive director also submitted a resume, was interviewed several times and “they checked my references back 20 years,” she said.
The board had worked with her for several years, Mr. Harff said, “so we all had a great opportunity to see her in action. She is a known quantity, and we felt there was no point doing any more interviewing of outsiders.”
The board’s decision was unanimous.
“Featherstone is on the cusp of great things,” said outgoing board president Marcia Randol in an interview. “Ann has been a wonderful part of Featherstone,” she added, “and we are delighted she has accepted our offer.”
The executive director’s contract was for one year, “infinitely renewable,” said Mrs. Randol.
The board was presented with an annual budget in the black. “We did very well, considering the economic circumstances,” Mrs. Randol said.
“We had some wonderful events,” said Ms. Kelly, citing the summer garden tea party and the Potters’ Bowl as examples. She said she also was pleased to see so many other groups using the campus for events such as Best Fest and ArtFarm Enterprises’ theatre presentations.
“People still call it a hidden gem, but I say, drop the ‘hidden,’” Ms. Kelly said. Asked to note her proudest achievements there, she answered: “That people know where Featherstone is and what it is . . . That I brought life to it . . . That it’s a viable organization.”
Her programming skills have seen the revenue that Featherstone derives from services (such as classes and camps) increase from about $60,000 a year a few years ago to more like $250,000 a year, according to the most recent available tax records, from 2008.
Ms. Smith said when her mother arrived, Featherstone’s class schedule was printed on one double-sided sheet of paper, and now there is a 56-page brochure detailing activities including gallery shows, musical evenings, poetry readings, lectures, a flea market, classes for young children, teenagers and adults in everything form painting to pottery.
“It’s a 24-7 job, but we’ve made it so,” said Ms. Smith eagerly. “We want to be here, we have programmed ourselves into being here.”
Her challenges as executive director include “continuing to make us financially stable . . . and to continue to expand what we do here and do everything well.”
She’d like to build on the program with more jewelry classes, perhaps blacksmithing, video and technology courses. She can imagine more gallery space and class space. But for this week, Ms. Smith was focused on Featherstone’s next gallery exhibition, Seven Artists You Should Know, opening Sunday with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m.
Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Kelly are excited about next year’s celebrations, which will include 15 gallery shows, 15 events, and an exhibition of 15 emerging artists curated by Ms. Smith’s new assistant, Island graduate Emmy Brown.
“And plenty of other suprises,” said Ms. Brown, “for anyone who takes the adventure of driving up the hill.”
Also at Featherstone’s annual meeting, Marston Clough was elected as the board’s new president. Mr. Harff reported the slate of other new officers: Mary Sullivan, vice president; Gary Parrish, treasurer; and Nancy Morris, secretary.