Moving Forward With Grace
Sometimes, getting somewhere else requires knowing where you are. Stepping into leadership at a decades-old organization can be like that; you’ll need your bearings. Kathryn Lovinsky had them when she started at the nonprofit Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort (G.R.A.C.E.). Kathryn knows the magic of making art. She knows Hardwick. Now she is discovering the ways to balance longstanding tradition with new ideas.
Hardwick is a Northeast Kingdom town with a population of about 3,000 and chartered in 1781. The Firehouse was built in 1885. G.R.A.C.E. was founded in 1975; they bought and moved into the Firehouse in the early 2000s. Kathryn became executive director in September 2015.
Kathryn grew up in Hardwick. She moved away, went to college, worked. Came back. Her association with G.R.A.C.E. started about 10 years ago when her grandmother participated in workshops at the Greensboro Nursing Home. That association is likely the reason she became an art therapist (she completed a master’s degree in 2012). Her passion for working at G.R.A.C.E. is deeply rooted. “I come from an art background — fine art and art therapy. Personally, I just really believe in the power of creative expression. I’ve seen the ways it helps people connect as a community, and the ways it helps people to connect therapeutically.”
G.R.A.C.E. is now offering arts instruction. New classes in life drawing, monotype printing, weaving, and coil basket making are a part of the EXPLORE program launched in the spring of 2017. That announcement signals a shift and addresses well-considered goals including financial sustainability and employment for teaching artists. The organization has had arts workshops “gosh, for decades,” says Kathryn as she thinks back to the times with her grandmother. The formula all this time has been: “We supply the materials, and there is a professional artist here. Everyone’s welcome, and you are encouraged just to make art.” No teaching, just the opportunity to create.
G.R.A.C.E.’s Thursday group has run for “years and years. It’s open to anyone in the community.” Several attendees go first to the community lunch at the church. One man brings a guitar; there is a sing-along. “It is a lot of the same people that have come for years, but frequently, there are new faces.” And, there is always an “explosion of excitement” when a past member returns after a long haitus. It’s not so much a workshop as — in Kathryn’s words — “just an amazing space.” This has been the beauty and magic of G.R.A.C.E. for decades. Adding to the format wasn’t taken lightly.
A great deal of behind-the-scenes work backs up the changes. Forty-year-old traditions are poked and prodded. “We have been working on rebranding. G.R.A.C.E. has been known as a specific entity for so long; there have been challenges to trying to turn it on its head.” She notes that “a lot of board members have been involved for a very long time — some since the inception.” What they all have in common is this: “They are really committed to G.R.A.C.E. succeeding as an organization.” Kathryn acknowledges they face the same thing peer organizations struggle with: “A lot of competition for a small pool of grants.”
The new mission statement took “a bunch of brainstorming, writing and re-writing … it always takes a lot to get something off the ground.” With an eye toward expressing inclusivity, the board arrived at “Grass Roots Art and Community Effort (G.R.A.C.E.) is focused on empowering individuals through transformative art experiences, which lead to creative growth and self-discovery. At the core of G.R.A.C.E. is a commitment to unite diverse communities through the process of art making and exhibitions.”
The new website is “still a work in progress,” but has a “platform to register and pay online for the new instructional courses — a huge difference.” Kathryn and the board are looking for ways for the organization to become more involved in the community. “We got involved with Hardwick’s First Fridays; Community Allies for Safety, Trust, and Respect; and are doing more open houses.” There are new collaborations with new partners. From April to July, G.R.A.C.E. will be partnering with WholeHeart; the director, Holly Wilkinson will lead a workshop at G.R.A.C.E. The Highland Center for the Arts will offer plein air. Leadership at G.R.A.C.E. is “trying to collaborate to cross promote, to bolster others instead of trying to compete.”
Staying the Course
Some elements of the nonprofit will not change. The artists working with G.R.A.C.E. are noteworthy: Janet Van Fleet, Marcie Vallette, Lisa Forster Beach. The artistic director, Kathy Stark, manages ongoing gallery exhibitions in the Old Firehouse which include workshop art and art from the permanent collection. Now she’ll manage the upcoming exhibitions from the new workshops. The organization has built a fine collection of outsider art including the works of Dot Kibbee, Gayleen Aiken, and Larry Bissonette.
The traditional programming continues. Because, Kathryn explains, “G.R.A.C.E. has really always had an openness and acceptance for anybody. I think that was a goal of the founder; this space would overcome any difference anybody had. The vision was a space of creativity where anyone would be able to come. Sustaining that is really important to us.”
— Susan McDowell with Kathryn Lovinsky