Vermont Arts Council

Steering the Ship: A Q&A with Vermont’s Cultural Leaders | Susan Evans McClure

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 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.

YOUR NAME and TITLE: Susan Evans McClure, Executive Director

YOUR ORGANIZATION: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum


Cultural institutions are cornerstones of our rural communities. Museums especially have the opportunity to be community conveners: we can bring people together who may never otherwise meet and interact.

What makes you hopeful for the future?

Seeing Vermont audiences come back to museums and performances with so much enthusiasm and warmth has given me huge hope for the future. It has been wonderful to hear from people about the impact that arts, music, and history has in their lives. And nothing is better than seeing a young child at a museum or on a boat! It’s a great reminder of the way that all of our work can inspire people at any age.

What’s the most challenging part of your work currently?

The most challenging part of our work right now is the continued uncertainty that we’re facing in this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We may have the best laid plans, and those plans may be flexible, but we really don’t know what is coming next.

How have you changed as a leader since the early days of the pandemic?

The day that Vermont shut down everything in March of 2020, I felt a real pressure in my role to keep our organization afloat and keep all of our staff employed. Before the pandemic, I never realized the important role that museums and cultural institutions play in our local and regional economies. But the pandemic has made it all too clear that Vermont’s local and regional economies are built on our cultural and tourism industries. Museums are learning centers, we collect objects, we tell stories, and we also employ people!  

What are you prioritizing?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the national reckoning on racial justice have given us a chance to really assess what is important to us and what we want to achieve in partnership with our community. And to us, it’s all about access. The lake and the history that lies within it belong to the people of Vermont and New York. And we want to make it possible for everyone to experience that for themselves, with no barriers to that access. So we no longer charge admission to the museum (it’s free!), and all of our summer camps for kids are on a pay-what-you-can model. We are also taking steps to make our campus and our programs more physically accessible. And we’re working to make the lake and the lake’s underwater cultural heritage more accessible to everyone.

How do you see your relationship with your audience or constituents evolving over the next five years?

The Museum’s vision and mission has evolved as the community around it has grown and the world has changed. We are currently engaged in a strategic planning process, which includes updating our vision, mission and values. A key part of the strategic work being done by the staff and board is to guarantee that all Museum programs are accessible to all audiences and inclusive of all voices. We want our creative processes to be equitable and shaped by values that reflect what is important to our community and to us. And we’ll continue to listen, and continue to adapt, as we move forward together in partnership with our community.

How can cultural institutions and organizations participate in the current call for creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world?

Cultural institutions are cornerstones of our rural communities. Museums especially have the opportunity to be community conveners: we can bring people together who may never otherwise meet and interact. When people from diverse backgrounds learn together, they learn things they would not experience firsthand in a homogenous group of people – how to talk to, work with, and grow alongside people who are different from them. This work is crucial to teaching kids, and all of us, how to be better social and emotional learners – and will develop more empathetic adults and a kinder society.

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?

The upside of the incredible tumult and change of the past few years is that it has, in some ways, freed us to make the changes necessary to do our best work. At Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, we continually go back to “what’s the right thing to do in this circumstance?” Not “what will make us the most money?” or “what do our funders support?” but rather “what have our audiences told us is important to them?” We have learned that we actually do have the power to do the right thing, and it has helped us to become a stronger institution. While we always used to talk about roadblocks or barriers, now we talk about making decisions from our values and thinking about what we can build.