Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Juliet Feibel: … is this much growth, and growth is what we all desire, but growth is not easy. Growth brings change. Change is hard.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass. Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Juliet Feibel. She is Executive Director of ArtsWorcester, and welcome to our program.
Juliet Feibel: Thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: I have to tell you every time I go to Worcester, which is frequently, I feel like a page is turned every single time. One minute I’m there, and you have blank buildings. The next minute they’re covered with art. One minute you have the wonderful Hanover, and then the next thing there’s another new black-box space and a new gallery. What’s going on in Worcester?
Juliet Feibel: I believe it is the culmination of many decades of effort that’re just coming visible now. Now, I need to flag I am a relative newcomer to Worcester and to Massachusetts. I’ve only lived here for 12 years, which in Worcester time is about 30 seconds. So many of the changes I see are different groups working hard and the city– everyone from the municipal government to philanthropic leadership to businesses being completely wide open, welcoming change.
Anita Walker: Where does ArtsWorcester sit in this milieu?
Juliet Feibel: We hold a unique spot. We are in our 40th anniversary this year. We have always been a small, grassroots organization, but because of our longevity and now our establishment in a permanent home, we have a different kind of stature. So we are two things at the same time. It’s a happy kind of tension. We’re small. We’re responsive. We’re nimble, and yet we’ve been around, by some people’s parameters, forever.
Anita Walker: Now talk about your new space. How does that come into play with your work?
Juliet Feibel: It’s a dream come true. The opportunity to build a venue specifically for the purpose of our exhibition programs and the education we do within those exhibitions is, for every organization, something that everyone would love to do. It is a gift to be at the heart of the revitalizing downtown. We’ll be located between the library and the Hanover Theatre. We’re two blocks off of the Worcester Common, so we’re in a beautiful nexus of like-minded organizations and institutions. But for us to be able to light the work properly, to be able to adhere to the standards of universal design, to be able to hang things from the ceiling is a spectacular advancement for our artists.
Anita Walker: When you say those two words, universal design, you know that is music to our ears here at Mass Cultural Council.
Juliet Feibel: I suppose it would be, yes.
Anita Walker: … because of our UP program, which, for the past I can’t even remember how many years we’ve been encouraging organizations to think about that. So how did that get incorporated into your designs?
Juliet Feibel: Well, it was first and foremost the primary motivation to seek a new facility that was– the fact that we could never make our old home in any way compliant was a burden and a sorrow to the organization on a daily basis. For us, we thought about access points. We thought about signage. We thought about all the ways that you want to ensure that multiple forms of mobility all feel equal in the space.
Anita Walker: So you’re a small, nimble, agile organization. You now have a fixed space. You’ve been around for 40 years. We have a lot of what we call culture nerds who listen to our program, and many of them may be in year 1 to 20 of 1 of these small, nimble organizations. We may have some who are sitting here thinking about, “Do we even want to become part of the real-estate business and having a building and owning and operating it and having that responsibility? Could that inhibit our nimbleness and agility?” I know you’ve only been there for 12 years, but could you talk a little bit about some of the considerations that came into play with the new space but also some of your secrets of success and longevity in a small organization?
Juliet Feibel: Let me begin with the first one, the question of real estate. We hold a funny liminal position, which I think is ideal. We are forever tenants. We are forever renters. We have a 20-year lease, and my attorneys wouldn’t allow me to sign a longer one, but we also have a letter from our landlord and our great benefactor saying that we will have a home there as long as the organization is in operation. So, we are responsible from a capital-expense perspective for our fixtures, furnishings and equipment. We are not responsible for our walls, for our– anything beyond our normal upkeep, for the roof, for the heater, the boiler or the electrical service. This is part of what makes the gift of this facility so transformative. It has so many of the benefits of a permanent home without the burdens of those ongoing capital expenses. How we got there: ArtsWorcester has always had a core of extraordinarily talented and devoted artists within its membership. So when people talk about the arts in Worcester and how great it is that there’s so much great art in Worcester now, people prickle a little bit around ArtsWorcester, because we’ve seen and been exhibiting this wonderful art for decades. We’re really glad other people are noticing, to be sure, but there is a loyalty of the artists to the organization that was– is really core to our long-term survival, exquisite board governance.
Anita Walker: Talk about that. That is our favorite topic. I’m sitting with my colleague, Michael, who no one ever hears on this program, because he has earphones on, but he and I talk about nonprofit boards on a daily basis. So please discuss.
Juliet Feibel: ArtsWorcester was blessed with decades of devoted volunteers who did everything right. They crossed their T’s. They dotted their I’s. They adhered to protocol and process and respected bureaucracy and respected the work of administration, and that meant when I came into the job seven years ago, all the files were correct. All our nonprofit status, everything was done right. Our books were kept. We had all of our financial statements in order. That due diligence and that detail, that attention to detail that can feel a little tedious, is key to long-term survival. Hand in hand with that attention to detail is transparency. We take a fairly radical approach to transparency. We put our financial statements, our strategic plan. We share it all online. Every nonprofit, technically your books are open to the public. We make it very easy for our public to look at our books. We want artists to understand very clearly how our solo exhibitions are selected. As you can imagine, that’s probably one of the tensest areas of, “How do you do things, and why aren’t they going in my favor?” for an artist. We explain again and again how things work, how they operate, where money goes, where money is spent. We believe that you should be able to see as clearly into the heart of the organization as you see one of our exhibitions.
Anita Walker: Let’s get back to this board for a minute. Good luck, the nature of the people in Worcester, and onboarding protocol that makes sure the people who agree to come onto your board or that you invite onto your board have a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities, and it’s not just loving art, although that’s got to be a priority– but, seriously, how over time have you had a board of directors that has had that attention to the drudgery or fiscal detail while maintaining their passion for the work that you’re doing? That’s hard for organizations.
Juliet Feibel: It is hard, and it comes down to ensuring that there are, in every sense of the word, diverse viewpoints on that board and diverse skill sets. You will never have a board whose all members are equally as enthusiastic about the monthly financials, but you will– if you have a few of them, they will help show others. If you have others that are active ambassadors on social media, some can do that; some can’t. It’s putting all the ingredients in consistently that makes for that ongoing strength, but it’s also a question of culture. When a new board member comes in, they are given a sheath of paperwork, and it’s dense. It’s our conflict-of-interest policy. It’s a signed statement that they sign, that I sign that explains all the commitments and the responsibilities of individual board members and then what the board does as a whole, and so that kind of introduction, which happens long before they actually step onto the board– and gives them an opportunity to step back and say, “Maybe not,” and that does happen. It really clarifies our expectations, and so by the time they’re serving, they know what’s expected. They know what they’re supposed to be doing.
Anita Walker: So that’s on the board-member side. As executive director, obviously having such a wonderful board is a gift to you on the one hand. But it’s work. It’s work for the executive director. It’s work to engage and keep board members engaged. It’s work to listen to the advice and input of board members who maybe are engaged with the organization once a month and not every single day, and there is sort of a natural instinct among many EDs to sort of chafe at too much oversight and input. Talk about that from your perspective.
Juliet Feibel: When I stepped on into the organization, the organization was clearly ready for change, and I was a newcomer. I had no alliances. I had no connections or responsibilities or debt to anyone, so I could operate cleanly, and what that meant was I was able to do a 360 and say, “That’s working; that’s not. Tell me more about this, and is it working?” and the board was very open to tweaks and changes. The core mission remained the same, how we talked about that mission, whether we had to prune in order to grow, but that core trunk remained kind of constant. So, the board had immediately set a culture, where they were not just respectful but enthusiastic about what I wanted to do and were very supportive, and, frankly, I think relieved to have someone to say, “Hey, we can do things differently, and it will be fun. It will be good. The results will be great,” not fed the culture as well. So there is a very healthy back-and-forth of advice and support. I always have to remind myself to signal to the board what I need, because I– especially now with this much growth– and growth is what we all desire, but growth is not easy. Growth brings change. Change is hard, so for me to remember to signal to the board consistently what I need from them to be able to do the ambitious things that we envision.
Anita Walker: So if there is an executive director sitting out there listening to this saying, “Man, I’d give anything to have a board like that,” first step, what do you recommend?
Juliet Feibel: Cut the deadwood. Don’t be afraid to thank board members for their service. One board member who is not participatory and doesn’t show up to meetings and does not serve in any way that is visible to the other members, it weighs everyone down. To be able to not fear letting board members go I think is key. I think being very explicit with your board about their legal responsibilities, their fiduciary responsibilities, what it is they’re supposed to be doing from the get-go, it’s clear that it’s not– of course being on the board is a status position, but it’s a status position that you have to work for, making sure that everyone is on the same page of that and being honest and being prepared for your own meetings. Never underestimate the impact on a board when your executive director comes in and has an agenda, and if we don’t have work for that agenda, cancel the meeting. Don’t meet if there’s not something to do. So, I take it very seriously that my board members’ time should not be wasted, and in the same way I don’t ever experience them wasting mine.
Anita Walker: Juliet, words of wisdom for so many people in your position in cultural nonprofits but also words of wisdom for board members who may be listening, saying, “Could this be me, or how can I have my organization really tidy up the board relationship?” Juliet Feibel, Executive Director of ArtsWorcester, another one of our creative minds out loud.
Juliet Feibel: Well, thank you so much for having me on the show.
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