Steering the Ship: A Q&A with Vermont’s Cultural Leaders | Danny Lichtenfeld
Leaders of arts and cultural organizations must draw on perhaps until now untested courage and fortitude to navigate today’s choppy seas. A viral pandemic, economic devastation, unending climate crises, and mass demonstrations to end systemic racism—all are reshaping the cultural landscape. How will these factors shape the arts now and in the future?
As part of a new series featuring Vermont’s arts and cultural leaders, we’re asking how they are navigating these peculiar times. We hope that the responses might help other arts and cultural organizations chart their own voyage.
This month we feature Danny Lichtenfeld, director of Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, who was recently featured in an interview on Vermont Public Radio about the current BMAC exhibit, “Overboard,” featuring works inspired by The Great Shoe Spill of 1990.
YOUR NAME and TITLE: Danny Lichtenfeld, Director
YOUR ORGANIZATION: Brattleboro Museum & Art Center
YEAR YOU JOINED ORGANIZATION: 2007
MONTH/YEAR YOU WERE APPOINTED TO CURRENT POSITION: September 2007
What makes you hopeful for the future?
The way in which Vermonters have answered the call to place our collective health and well-being ahead of individual desires, and the way the pandemic has heightened our awareness of the extent to which we are all deeply reliant on one another. I’m hopeful that these developments portend a future in which Vermonters will continue to do even more to make sure we can all thrive… together.
What’s the most challenging part of your work currently?
Developing the new programs, systems, skills, and connections required to fulfill our mission and serve our community in new ways has been exhausting and stressful—much more improvisatory than I’m generally comfortable with. As someone who appreciates getting systems and routines in place and then letting them run, maybe with some tweaking now and then, this extended stretch of “building the plane while we’ve been flying it” has been hard.
How have you changed as a leader in the last six months?
I hope I have become even more appreciative of the incredible efforts of the staff, volunteers, partners, and collaborators who make the museum run. I think I’ve also gotten a bit better about letting certain things go, not sweating the small stuff (as much).
What are you prioritizing?
When the pandemic hit, we put our capital campaign and ambitious expansion plans on hold. In the months since, we’ve circled back to many of our stakeholders and community members to gauge whether those pre-pandemic plans still make sense. The overwhelming message we have heard, loud and clear, is that our project can be a critical piece of the long-term, post-pandemic recovery in our region. With that in mind, resuming our capital campaign and getting that project back on track are my top priorities right now.
How do you see your relationship with your audience evolving over the next five years?
We are committed to making significant strides in being of service not just to traditional museum-goers but to everyone in our area who is—or could be—interested in what we do, whose lives could be enriched through engagement with contemporary art and ideas. To get to that place over the next five years, I see us becoming even more open to collaboration, partnership, listening, and responding to the hopes and needs of our community.
How can cultural institutions and organizations participate in the current call for creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world?
We as an organization and I as a leader are working hard to figure this out right now, so I wouldn’t presume to make any specific recommendations to anyone else just yet. The one thing I would say, and it’s really just a starting place, is this: Actively invite and welcome change, and invite new ideas and perspectives, even the ones—especially the ones—those that don’t feel comfortable. We can’t undo generations of ingrained inequity and exclusion incrementally or painlessly. If it feels difficult, especially at the start, that might mean we’re moving in the right direction.
What are some lessons learned or advice that you can share with other organizations who are grappling with the multi-faceted challenges of this time?
I have found that this extended period of upheaval presents a higher risk than usual of becoming scattered, moving in a million different directions at once, and losing organizational cohesion. Take the time to check in with your mission, to methodically discuss and articulate goals and objectives (even if they’re much shorter term ones than usual), to be clear about which audiences you seek to serve at this time and how, and to make sure, to the extent possible, that your resources are deployed accordingly.
Also, in terms of what we traditionally think of as accomplishments, cut yourself some slack. Just paying the bills, meeting payroll, staying open… for many organizations, these are great and commendable accomplishments right now. No need to beat yourself up for not doing more.