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Susan Wissler: “If an angel donor had been there in 2008 and said, ‘Don’t worry, I will solve your problem,’ we would still be a musty old historic house because we wouldn’t have had to learn from our mistakes and learn from opportunities.”
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Susan Wissler. She is the Executive Director of The Mount, which is Edith Wharton’s home in The Berkshires, and welcome to our program.
Susan Wissler: Anita, thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Anita Walker: We’re gonna talk a little bit about what everybody loves, which is a great turnaround story. But before we do that, there was a fantastic discovery recently to do with Edith Wharton.
Susan Wissler: This is true. This is true. A new manuscript hidden in plain sight in the archives out in Texas. Two scholars from the U.K. discovered a full length three-act play written by Edith Wharton in 1901, which is early for her, which clearly shows that long before she tried her hand as a novelist, she was busily establishing herself as a playwright.
Anita Walker: When we thought we had read everything Edith Wharton had ever written–
Susan Wissler: There you go, yep.
Anita Walker: –here’s something new.
Susan Wissler: Here’s something new.
Anita Walker: Oh, how exciting. What did you do the day you found out?
Susan Wissler: Well, actually, I got contacted by the scholars. I got an email out of the blue saying, “We have good news. We found this manuscript. We’ve written an article. It’s about to be published in the Edith Wharton Review, which has a circulation of about 200, and we just were wondering if I thought– did The Mount think that there was a wider interest in this story?” And I said, “Oh, my god, yes, but put on the brakes, because if we pitch to a larger media source, they want to be the ones to break the story.” So the Edith Wharton Review slowed down their publication date, got in touch with The New Yorker. Rebecca Mead, a wonderful writer for The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, and she immediately pounced on the story, and so The New Yorker broke it about two weeks later, and it went kind of viral, actually. And I’ve actually been contacted by a couple of theaters and a producer from the west coast, and so it’s been lots of fun. And it’s an excellent play, and for Wharton it has pretty happy ending. At least the heroine doesn’t die, so…
Anita Walker: <laughs> Can you give us a thumbnail what it’s about?
Susan Wissler: Short, involves euthanasia, so it’s a very early treatment of the question of mercy killing, and so it’s set in England. It involves a second marriage. The first wife has a broken back and is actually aided to die by the nurse, who then marries the husband. And then there’s a doctor that tries to blackmail her, the family sort of shuns her, but in the end she gets her just desert, so it’s a good story.
Anita Walker: Oh, wow. Can’t wait to see it come to life on stage, but how would–
Susan Wissler: We’re gonna be doing a reading at some point of the play, but I think it has legs.
Anita Walker: How exciting. Okay, that was just a little bit of news I couldn’t pass up talking to you about as long as we have you here. But what I really wanted to talk to you about is the turnaround story at The Mount. It’s probably not a secret, certainly not in The Berkshires, that there was a time when The Mount was really struggling financially, and this certainly is a situation that presents itself to many nonprofits in the course of their lifecycle, but you were presented with that, and tell us the story.
Susan Wissler: Well, it’s a long one with lots of twists and turns, and I really feel I need to start back in 2002 when we sort of opened for the first time as a historic house museum with a beautifully restored property, but it was an expensive restoration. It cost us about 12 million. And in the course of that and in the course of sort of just learning how to operate as a house museum where visitation went from 4,000 to, oh, close to 30,000 sort of overnight but the expenses went along with it, we had amassed a lot of debt. And so in 2008 the debt became more than we could sustain. It was about a little over 9 million, and we missed– it was commercial debt. We had a bank. Fortunately it was a local bank, but we missed a payment, and it was also right at the height of the recession or the beginning of the recession, and the bank issued a foreclosure statement, which set everything into a spiral. What was working in our favor is that we owed far more than the property was assessed at, and so the bank had no alternative really but to work with us and to give us time to work things out, which we did, but it was a long process. There were sort of many interesting twists and turns, the first of which happened in 2009 when a woman, a very philanthropic and wealthy woman in New York City is in the office with her doctor saying we have to do something, and the doctor replies, “Well, if you really want to do something, I can help. My husband is chairman of the board.”
Anita Walker: Oh, serendipity.
Susan Wissler: Serendipity, but I’ve come to believe that it’s not serendipity and it’s not random, these moments all along the way that just happened right at the right moment. So this woman who had never set foot on The Mount property gave a gift of 800,000, and that allowed us to sit down with the lenders and make sort of our first down payment in exchange for time, so we were always negotiating for time, and that gave us I believe it was three years. And then during this time period we at the same time had to be extremely entrepreneurial. Right when we were foreclosed upon, we were like a great sort of beached whale silent on a beach, and it was pretty tough and pretty demoralizing. I was having to go to the bank and ask for permission to pay any bill. We were a very skeletal staff. And so we just started to figure out, how are we gonna create vibrancy, because the community, while sorry that The Mount wasn’t gonna be there really wouldn’t miss it because they hadn’t really been engaged with it. And so we started to really set our minds about how do we sort of loosen up our collar and become sort of more engaged with the community, the community more engaged with us, and so we took out all the velvet ropes in the house, said people can go wherever they want. We said dogs welcome, children welcome. We started hosting all kinds of programming with other cultural partners, so we brought in sculpture, we brought in theater, we started doing jazz on the terrace, which was free, and for the first couple of years we’d have 30 or 40 people, but all of the sudden it took off, and we now get between 400 and 600 a night and it’s become a happening and people care. And so that has been a process that has taken eight or nine years, but everything that we think about is about public access and also accessibility, and so Mass Cultural Council has been extremely helpful with your UP Initiative, which we’re embracing in every way we can. We’ve got lots to learn, but it’s been fun to try to think about how to make the property accessible to different sorts of communities. Let’s see. So first installment–
Anita Walker: So to–
Susan Wissler: –was–
Anita Walker: –so to go–
Susan Wissler: –2008 or ’09, yeah.
Anita Walker: –so to just rewind a little bit, so back to that day where the crisis occurs and you’re like, what to do, how was your board engaged? How did they react?
Susan Wissler: Well, the board at that point was very small. It might’ve been a board of four. I mean we were a sinking ship and people were jumping, frankly, and two of my trustees were in England, so it was a very small board. We were fortunate that we had one trustee who was a reorganization specialist, so he was helpful, but the board was not local, so in terms of how it felt to the staff, it was not unlike feeling like the parents had gone and here we were left to try to figure out what to do, basically, and so– which was not to say the board wasn’t fully involved. They were, but on a day-to-day basis we were pretty much on our own, which was a good thing because we were lean, we became scrappy, we became entrepreneurial, and in retrospect when I think about it– and I’ll fast forward to the end, which is that we actually paid off all our debt in 2016, and there’s some interesting twists to that, too. But if an angel donor had been there in 2008 and said, “Don’t worry, I will solve your problems,” we would still be a musty old historic house because we wouldn’t have had to learn from our mistakes and learn from opportunities, and so the fact that we’ve had to fight our way back has been an incredibly good thing, incredibly good.
Anita Walker: So have you changed the makeup or the size of the board?
Susan Wissler: The board growth has been phenomenal. So at our low we were at three or four. We’re now at nineteen and still growing, and a great group of people, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish. And so when we– not that I’m asking or wishing for debt again, but when one had financial issues, there’s sort of one topic of conversation, one focus for a board meeting. Those days are over, and so sometimes it feels a little bit like herding cats, but it’s all good and their hearts are all in the right place, and I couldn’t do it without them.
Anita Walker: Tell about the twist at the end.
Susan Wissler: Well, let’s see. So 2009 we had our first big payment. The next kind of unbelievable thing that happened is I was interviewed by our local paper and was I guess maybe perhaps more transparent and forthright than most heads of organizations in terms of what our financials looked like. I just laid it all on the table. And the story was published in The Eagle, and within the half an hour I receive an email from someone saying, “Appreciate your transparency. I have a lemon of a stock portfolio. Here. You have it. Let’s see if you can make lemonade,” and that was about 300,000, which was– so, again, things sort of outside of my control really, but things like this just keep happening, so I sort of feel as if Edith has got her hand in things. And another incredible thing that happened was probably in 2014 a deluge, a massive thunderstorm that drops like seven inches of rain in less than an hour and creates kind of this flood of water that gathers speed as it comes down the entrance drive and then sort of jumps to the limestone paths and then ends up depositing tons and tons of debris right in our beautiful flower garden right before the wedding season is about to open. Sounds like a disaster. Well, we converted it into an extraordinary sort of community opportunity, and so everyone got out and helped save the perennials, which were like sort of wounded war victims in an avalanche of mud, and we raised enough money to fix the gardens within a matter of days. I mean it was just an extraordinary thing, and it was a community effort, and that was really confirmation that we’d sort of turned the corner in terms of finding out ways to make The Mount matter to the community.
Anita Walker: I feel like the story that you’re sharing is really about not holding these precious treasures tight, but to really letting the community share the ups and the downs, the good and the bad and everybody be part of the successes and fixing the failures.
Susan Wissler: Exactly.
Anita Walker: But I want to ask about you, because you’ve been there through all of this, and I can only imagine, in fact I think I almost remember meeting you one of the very first times when I came to Massachusetts, which was about the time when– it was just prior to I think–
Susan Wissler: It was just prior.
Anita Walker: Just prior.
Susan Wissler: And we’d been denied for a Mass Cultural Council grant.
Anita Walker: I think that’s why I came out to see you. <laughs>
Susan Wissler: And that was why you came out, and the reason, which was absolutely sound, was that we were financially I mean clearly in a very shaky situation.
Anita Walker: So how did you personally have the gumption, the entrepreneurial spirt? I mean a lot of people would’ve walked away at that point and said, “This is hopeless. I’m gonna go find something else to do.” I mean what was it that you saw, that you felt that kept you and kept your spirits?
Susan Wissler: That’s a good question. I’d say, A, I love the place and I love my staff, and so tremendous loyalty. Also, I will say a sense of responsibility. I mean I was there since 2002, so not that I necessarily could’ve changed the course of anything, but I was witness to/participant in every step that took the organization to the precipice, so I felt a real responsibility to see it through as best I could. That and an unwavering faith in the value of the property, the mission, and confidence always that donors were out there if I could only reach them, and there were a handful, a few that were extremely loyal and extremely important to the turnaround who are very modest people and don’t wish for acknowledgment or recognition but I owe them a great debt, as does The Mount.
Anita Walker: So you actually changed the character of the place, the relationship that it has with people, the way you think about what a historic home should be and how accessible it should be. Have you changed anything else in terms of the way you manage the fiscal side of the operation?
Susan Wissler: Yes. We have no debt, we have no intention of incurring debt. We are still extremely vulnerable, and I have this discussion with my trustees all along. Our great vulnerability now, and I’m sure this is probably– a lot of my peers out there are probably I would imagine in the same boat, while we receive contributions from many it’s in fact the generosity of a few that is what has sustained the organization, and that is a vulnerability because life is unpredictable. And if one of these donors, if something were to happen or something were to happen to their children or to their spouse or if their life priorities switch and all of the sudden The Mount is not a–
Anita Walker: It’s a big hole.
Susan Wissler: –a top goal, the loss of one of them is enough to change everything drastically, and that in fact is the argument that I took to the bank in 2015 when I made them an offer at a sizeable discount, but it was still a good offer. I said, “Look, guys. This is the money I have. I have it today. We can close in 30 days. But one death, one sickness, one tragedy and we’ve got nothing, so think about it.” And they were taken by surprise. They were not expecting that I was gonna come in with cash on the table, but that was all very strategic, and within 24 hour we had a deal. But it was the truth and they made the right choice.
Anita Walker: So you can’t cut your way back to salvation. You had to lean in. You had to program. You had to think about new ways to engage. Transparency and honesty takes you a long way.
Susan Wissler: It does. It really does.
Anita Walker: It builds trust.
Susan Wissler: Yeah, and I think it relieves internal pressure, too. I mean you’re not hiding. You’re not playing a double game. You’re not two different people. You’re not two different institutions. I mean this is who we are, and so that’s been a real learning curve. And the other thing I really learned is I mean there are people who offered to lend us money to take the bank out, and I refused to accept it. I mean if I don’t know how to pay something back, if I don’t have a game plan, I’m not taking that money. And knowing that I must protect my donors first is a paramount rule, and so do not let your donor be a fool, and that will pay back big time going forward.
Anita Walker: So you’ve given another whole chapter, another new life to the legacy of Edith Wharton, and I feel like maybe she has rewarded you with another gift of another manuscript.
Susan Wissler: Yes, exactly, that’s how I feel.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Susan Wissler: So, anyway…
Anita Walker: A great story. Susan Wissler, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud. Thanks for joining us.
Susan Wissler: And thank you, Anita. This has been great.
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