Steering the Ship: A Q&A with Vermont’s Cultural Leaders | Stephanie Skenyon
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 pressures, unending climate crises, and demands 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 series featuring Vermont’s arts and cultural leaders, we’re asking how they are navigating these times. We hope that the responses might help other arts and cultural organizations chart their own voyage.
YOUR NAME and TITLE: Stephanie Skenyon, Executive Director
YOUR ORGANIZATION: Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History
YEAR YOU JOINED ORGANIZATION: 2022
What makes you hopeful for the future?
The strength of community, and its endurance, has impressed me over the course of the challenges we have collectively faced during the Covid pandemic. This ongoing crisis has forced people, for the sake of health and safety, to remain, in many cases, apart. But, despite this, friends and family have found new ways to connect and to strengthen and sustain bonds. Smaller nonprofits and cultural organizations, like the Henry Sheldon Museum, have been able to engage with members, volunteers, and the public at large in many new, different, and exciting ways, and I think that a whole host of possibilities for the future have been revealed in the process.
What’s the most challenging part of your work currently?
One of the most consistent challenges that small museums and nonprofit organizations face is balancing ambitious goals with available resources. One of the things I admire the most about the Henry Sheldon Museum is the dedication of its staff, trustees, volunteers, and supporters and the amount of time and effort all of them put into developing and presenting engaging programming and exciting exhibitions. Back in June, when the Museum was due to open to the public for the first time in 2022, staff, trustees, and volunteers came together to install four new exhibitions exploring thought-provoking themes. Over 75 members, collectors, and visitors attended an exhibition opening hosted in the museum’s gardens, and the Museum offered a reception celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Stewart-Swift Research Center in July. The Henry Sheldon Museum is clearly situated at the center of a vibrant community, and this community enthusiastically celebrates and supports its many successes.
How have you changed as a leader since the early days of the pandemic?
I joined the Henry Sheldon Museum this past spring, and my experience as a college professor and graduate student during the pandemic has influenced my approach to leadership. The students I taught helped me realize that compassion is an essential feature of positive leadership. The best leadership strategies are founded upon the guidance and support engaged to bring individuals and communities together.
What are you prioritizing?
Small nonprofit organizations and museums all prioritize fundraising, although this can be accomplished in different ways. The Henry Sheldon Museum has benefitted from the support of donors, members, and grantor institutions, and I intend to build upon established relationships while, at the same time, focusing on growth and outreach. The Henry Sheldon Museum is dedicated to telling stories through its collections by exhibition and program development, and successful fundraising strategies will ensure that it will continue to do so for years to come.
How do you see your relationship with your audience or constituents evolving over the next five years?
That’s a very good question, and one I have thought a lot about since I first arrived here. The relationship between the Henry Sheldon Museum and its audience—or audiences—is a reciprocal one. The most important first step in the relationship development process for someone like me in this new position is to learn more about the audiences the Museum has traditionally served and what those audiences like, or want to see, at the Museum. It is my hope that the Henry Sheldon Museum will present new exhibitions and programs which tap into visitors’ interests while, at the same time, drawing upon the strengths of the Museum’s collections. I would also, however, like to reach out to other audiences within the community, the wider state of Vermont, and beyond. The Museum’s collections do certainly tell the story of the Museum itself, the town of Middlebury, and Addison County, but they can also reflect upon other events and issues of wider significance.
How can cultural institutions and organizations participate in the current call for creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world?
Many cultural institutions, like the Henry Sheldon Museum, tell stories. These stories are usually inspired by factors like a museum’s collection or archive, the community in which the institution is situated, or the interests of its staff, volunteers and trustees. Many of the kinds of stories inspired by these factors are enriching and engaging, but today, cultural institutions need to consider the stories that they haven’t yet told. Often, this requires a reassessment of, for example, a cultural institution’s collections and who is and who isn’t represented in them. The Henry Sheldon Museum recently considered these important questions in a speaker series entitled “The Elephant in the Room,” and an exhibition at the museum, “The Elephant in the Archives,” ponders the people, and their stories, who are underrepresented in our museum’s archives.
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?
Sustainability is, indeed, an achievement. The pandemic had a significant impact upon smaller museums and nonprofit organizations. Many were forced to close their doors temporarily, and others closed their doors permanently. I think the pandemic reinforced the value of long-term sustainability. It is essential for leaders, staff, and volunteers at smaller museums and nonprofits to think about how they will ensure that the institution in question is successfully passed on to the next generation. Decisions must be made that not only take into account the here and now; they must also respond to the here and now with careful thought about the future.
Anything else that you’d like to add?
I am very excited to begin my tenure at the Henry Sheldon Museum and to become part of so many remarkable local communities. I look forward to what’s to come!