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After the storm; Worcester Center for Crafts recovering from tumult.

Byline: Nancy Sheehan

How rocky was it? The Worcester Center for Crafts, one the oldest cultural institutions in Worcester, has come through a tumultuous period that included a board shakeup, resignations, favoritism, firings, layoffs, drastic budget cuts, bad feelings, hard times and revolving-door directorships.

And now? "We've been here 150 years, and we're not going anywhere,'' said Kathy Jellison, principal with Partners Consortium LLC of Providence, who took over as interim executive director in July. "We know our predecessors have weathered much more difficult times in our organization's history. We feel like we're weathering the storm. We're focused. We're on track."

The weather isn't all blue skies, however.

The craft center still must face the same tough economic environment that challenges even the sturdiest nonprofits, and cash-flow problems are a persistent bane. But there seems to be a new energy and optimism. A formerly divisive atmosphere has become a cooperative one. Staff positions are being filled in a fiscally cautious manner, mainly on the previously underemphasized financial side of things, and the search is on for a permanent executive director.

One of the biggest changes is the makeup of the board of trustees. Some seasoned craft center hands, such as longtime photography teacher Peter Faulkner, have returned, signaling an end to the discord that had sent them packing. They are among the many people who seem to have taken the craft center to heart.

"This place is not going to go away - not while I'm there anyway,'' Mr. Faulkner said of his decision to pitch in with the rebuilding process.

He has been joined by a bevy of bright new faces.

"We've brought on some amazing people in their 30s and 40s, which everyone wants on their board,'' Ms. Jellison said. "So half our board is young and energetic and smart. They're the ones who will teach us about what the brave new world looks like."

Even the board president is new. David Firstenberg, president of commercial lines at Hanover Insurance Group Inc., brings a much-needed focus on finances to the board, as well as energy and a fledgling love of crafts. He connected with the craft center through his wife Jackie, an artist.

"She takes ceramics classes and glass classes there, and she was getting the impression that all was not quite right - that it wasn't quite the vibrant place that it maybe had been,'' Mr. Firstenberg said. "We started talking about how we might help. We were talking about a fairly substantial financial gift at one point. Before doing that I thought it might make sense for me to go volunteer to do something, just to get a better idea of where the institution was and where it was likely to go."

Then-executive director David Leach had just the volunteer position for Mr. Firstenberg, and it was much bigger than helping out at a bake sale. "He said, `Hey, you can join the board. We need someone who has more of a business and financial background,'" Mr. Firstenberg said. "So I joined in November of '06."

Six months later, Mr. Leach was ousted in a stormy shakeup that also saw the resignation of the board president, Nadia Beard, and treasurer Paul Bohnson. Mr. Leach, who was executive director less than two years, described the center's financial situation at the time as "extremely challenging."

Did things seem irreparably bleak at that point?

"Not to me,'' Mr. Firstenberg said. "I've been a senior executive at one business or another for a very long time and that doesn't make you cold, exactly. It just keeps you focused on what needs to happen next."

The next task was to take a breather with an interim executive director and look hard at the finances. With a grant from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, a consultant was hired to help the craft center through that process. The Providence-based Ms. Jellison was put in place as the interim. This is her 15th interim directorship, largely in the nonprofit sector, and she is not a candidate for the permanent position, although many people would like her to be.

"It's like someone opened a window and let some fresh air in, said Candace Casey, director of the center's Krikorian Gallery. "She has made more friends for the craft center and opened up more doors for us. She's amazing."

But will she and her revamped board and staff be amazing enough? The challenges are steep. After the craft center opened its New Street Glass Studio in March 2004, the state-of-the-art facility was two things immediately: an artistic gem like no other in New England and beyond, and a huge drain on the center's finances. Ms. Jellison estimated that it cost $500,000 to install and about $60,000 a year in rent and utilities.

"It was an absolute right decision. It was just undercapitalized,'' Ms. Jellison said of previous executive director Maryon Attwood's project. "We didn't have enough capital to make it happen, and we used some of our own cash reserves. I think that's one way we got ourselves financially in hot water."

Seven months later, Ms. Attwood announced her resignation, citing exhaustion, burnout and the need for a change of pace. She is now a studio artist on Whitby Island in Washington state's peaceful Puget Sound.

The differences of opinion that fragmented the craft center appeared to coalesce around whether its financial troubles should be addressed by sharp cuts or by developing new and interesting ways to make more money, according to Ms. Jellison. From around 2005 to 2007, budget cuts eliminated positions in marketing, fundraising, education and youth programming. A program that gave college credit for craft center attendance was tossed out.

"Some difficult decisions were made, and about $400,000 worth of expenses were reduced,'' said Christine Proffitt, the board's first vice president. That was pared from an overall budget of only about $1.5 million. "Unfortunately that crippled our ability to grow and reinvest in ourselves. What we've done is taken this past year to really examine ourselves, learn from past errors and focus forward," she said.

For Mr. Firstenberg, that focus included bringing all factions back to the table.

"What I bring to this is I can be a good coach to our executive director,'' he said. "The old style of command and control direct from the corner office doesn't really happen anymore, frankly, in better-run businesses. It's about networking and enrollment and making sure all voices are heard."

The new plan also includes a new major fundraising initiative to be announced within weeks and other innovative touches, such as a partnership with the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton. The Krikorian Gallery's current show, "Pulp Function,'' an exhibition of delightfully unlikely creations made of paper, was organized by the Fuller Museum. A paper dress challenge, in which local designers were invited to compete "Project Runway" style with their paper frocks, was a well-attended success.

"I think it was a way to engage people a little more deeply in the exhibition, because it's a blockbuster show,'' Ms. Proffitt said. "We're thrilled to bring it to our audience, and we thought the paper dress challenge would be a really fun way to more deeply engage the public in participating in the show and in the craft center."

So are the bad days a fading memory?

Ms. Jellison said the opening of "Pulp Function" signaled the center's renaissance, attracting people never seen before at the center.

The fractiousness of the past, she said, was really a debate about direction. "We're not out of the woods yet, but we know where the path is."

Contact Nancy Sheehan by e-mail at


CUTLINE: (1) Kathy Jellison, a Providence-based consultant, was hired last July as interim executive director of the Worcester Center for Crafts. (2) Clay artist Joan Graham-Goss of Worcester forms a vase in the ceramics studio at the Worcester Center for Crafts. (3) Joe C. Curtis of Worcester refinishes a dining room chair at the Worcester Center for Crafts.

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 14, 2008
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