Steering the Ship: A Q&A with Vermont’s Cultural Leaders | Keisha Luce
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 Keisha Luce, executive director of Highland Center for the Arts.
YOUR NAME and TITLE: Keisha Luce, Executive Director
YEAR YOU JOINED ORGANIZATION: 2020
MONTH/YEAR YOU WERE APPOINTED TO CURRENT POSITION: January 2020
What makes you hopeful for the future?
I have a Bread & Puppet Theater poster on my office wall from a 1973 performance titled “That Simple Light May Rise Out of Complicated Darkness.” This has been a year of complicated darkness, and we’ve seen tremendous divides within the country, but it has also been a period of active discourse in our country about everything from racial equality to patriotism to global health issues. These issues were living in the undercurrent and now have become part of our mainstream consciousness. The fact that our nation is talking gives me hope.
What’s the most challenging part of your work currently?
Prior to the pandemic, we worked to bring large numbers of people together to experience the arts. That has dramatically shifted into a mindset of how we bring small groups together safely. The good news is that we are still able to offer people the opportunity to experience the arts. Much of our time is spent ensuring that we are following state guidelines and our COVID protocols are in place.
How have you changed as a leader in the last six months?
I’ve had to stretch my imagination and find ways to deliver meaningful programming for our audience, while supporting our relationship with artists. The constraints under which we are operating has forced me to take a new look. This winter we created the Open Air Gallery Ski & Snowshoe trail, a two-mile adventure where people can ski amid art. It’s been a successful project, and I don’t think I would have pursued it if we were not under the circumstance of a pandemic. I’ve also had to learn to let go. There have been several times when I’ve wanted to add a feature to a program or include a certain event, but it didn’t line up with COVID protocol. It’s hard to stifle that excitement, but given the circumstances it has been the best course of action at times.
What are you prioritizing?
The health of the community, our audience, artists and staff is first priority for HCA.
How do you see your relationship with your audience evolving over the next five years?
That seems to be a looming question for many sectors. There is a lot of research to suggest that performing arts organizations will be among the last to reopen at full capacity. The caution and seriousness that Vermonters have exhibited during the pandemic has led to low COVID numbers in our communities, but as a state we might be among the last to return to “normal.” Eventually, I do think we will return to a time when venues are full again.
How can cultural institutions and organizations participate in the current call for creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world?
By reflecting the diversity and inclusivity we want to see in the world on our stages. Several years ago I saw W. Kamau Bell’s one-man show Ending Racism in About an Hour. It was equally funny and profound. I remember some of the jokes, but what hit to the bone was seeing systemic racism through a different lens. The performances we bring to our stages can engender genuine momentum for change.
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?
Experiment and be flexible enough to pivot. Last year was defined by uncertainty, and I suspect the upcoming year will be as well. I think if you meet doubt with the ability to be comfortable experimenting and changing direction when needed, then the challenges become easier to tackle.
Read about Highland Center’s new outdoor gallery and ski and snowshoe trail.