Craft community still reeling from HandMade director’s departure

Many in the WNC craft community are still shocked by the sudden departure of Geraldine Plato, the former executive director of HandMade in America, which promotes the local craft economy.

She and the nonprofit severed ties in January for reasons that haven’t been publicly discussed, and a rising chorus of voices is asking for answers from HandMade’s board.

“I must register my dismay, confusion and anger at the firing of Geraldine Plato as director of Handmade,” wrote Rob Pulleyn in a letter to the HandMade board members last week. Pulleyn is the current chair of the Asheville Art Museum and sits on the board of ArtsNC, the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design and Penland School of Crafts. “I have never seen such an irresponsible and capricious board decision as the one you recently made. …  I don’t know the internal discussions, the leadership dynamics of the board, or the reason for making such a precipitous and cruel firing, I again only know the results. Your decision has been devastating to the entire WNC crafts community.”

The Asheville Citizen-Times originally reported on Plato’s departure. After that, both HandMade staff and others offered public concerns about the decision, expressing shock and dismay.

“Organizations and executive employees part ways all the time and for a wide variety of reasons. I have no issue with the fact that HIA and Geraldine Plato came to a parting of the ways. While I personally think Geraldine was very good at this job and had the trust and respect of the community at large, it is the way in which the board of HIA chose to handle this situation that has made me so frustrated and angry,” wrote former American Craft Council executive director Andrew Glasgow in a separate letter to board members last week.

While those familiar with nonprofit management say it’s not unusual for a board and an executive director to part ways, Glasgow says that with an organization this important to the craft economy, there ought to be more information given about the decision.

HandMade was founded through collaborative community efforts in the early 1990s, with a mission to promote craft and culture for the WNC economy. Former executive director Becky Anderson was almost synonymous with the group. After her 14-year tenure, an extensive search was conducted that led to Plato’s hiring in early 2008.

Glasgow says he and many others felt Plato (former assistant director at Penland and longtime WNC resident) brought a new level of energy, enthusiasm and capability to the nonprofit.

“I can’t believe nondisclosure includes what everyone was unhappy about. For the community and the artists and the constituents to be so pleased with [Plato’s] leadership, where was the disconnect?” Glasgow said in discussions with Xpress. “Why was the chasm so big and so unknown? If the board was unhappy, why be secretive about it, and then all of a sudden, she’s not there anymore?”

Xpress contacted interim executive director (and former board member) Elizabeth Russell last week after e-mails from Pullen and Glasgow were sent to board members. After several requests for information about Plato’s departure and the concerns stated, board chair Bill Lehnert e-mailed a statement this afternoon. Here it is, in its entirety:

“Thank you for the opportunity to provide a response on behalf of HandMade in America (HIA). I am disappointed that these letters were written without deliberate discussions with the HIA Board first.

The mission of HandMade in America (HIA) is to grow the handmade economies by providing the tools, markets, and partnerships while honoring craft, cultural heritage, and spirit of community. We envision a thriving region that leverages the distinctive cultural assets of its people and its communities. This core vision and mission basically has not changed since its inception when many of our constituents participated in its formation. 

After considerable effort in 2009 by many stakeholders, the guiding principles of HIA were reaffirmed and defined in greater detail relative to tomorrow’s needs. The result was a comprehensive strategic plan for the next five years approved by the Board on November 19, 2009. Over this timeframe, HIA will refine and integrate its programs and solidify the ways it delivers and funds them in the western North Carolina, while working with partners to make HIA programs available in other regions. Delivering integrated services in local communities, financial sustainability, strengthening board, staff, and infrastructure, and new program development are a few of the goals to achieve our new strategic direction. We are actively pursuing this next chapter in our organization’s evolution of service to the greater crafts community and to do so, are moving forward in seeking a new executive director. We acknowledge the difficult nature of any transition in employment and strive to treat everyone with respect and dignity in this process. We value the service of Ms. Plato and have sought to work with her to move forward separately in a manner best for both parties and certainly wish her well.

That said, it is and will continue to be the policy of HIA not to comment regarding personnel matters for the protection and privacy of employees and HIA. As people in leadership positions in other organizations, I am confident each of you is aware that personnel matters of any kind are best addressed in executive session. It is not secrecy nor silence but adherence to and respect for the rules of order that govern and protect any organization and its people.

But perception is reality and your perception of actions of the Board is one of secrecy, unprofessionalism, and insensitivity. I can assure you without qualification that this was not the case in any circumstance. Every effort was made to address these very concerns before, during and after the transition and all members of the Board were very sensitive to these issues during all phases of the process. 

In closing, all stakeholders have a vested interest in the continued success of HIA, its people and its programs. Plato and HIA have reached agreement and are moving forward. The Board and staff of HIA are committed to its vision and mission and hope you will continue your support and join us as we implement our strategic plan.”


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9 thoughts on “Craft community still reeling from HandMade director’s departure

  1. As a professional artisan living and working in Asheville for over 20 years, I must say, Handmade in America has never done a thing for me. Or any of the local professional artisan’s I know of.

  2. Jon Elliston


    I’d like to know more, as someone who knows little about this.

    Do you work in the craft arts? And if so, what could or should HandMade have done to promote your work?

    And what would you like to see the organization do in the future?

  3. Hi Jon,
    Yes, I am a professional artisan. I have made my living out of my own creativity for 30 years. Selling to specialty shops, catalogs and selling directly via my own retail space in New Orleans on Jackson Square, locally at Kress Emporium and via my website.

    I will get back to you in a day or two with a well thought out answer to your questions.

  4. Here is my history with this organization. Shortly after I moved here I received a survey asking VERY probing questions about my business. I’m sure most other local artisan /craftspeople received this too. Then they sent out a press release that the creative field in this area had a huge financial impact. And they would work to promote us.

    Then for several years I heard nothing. But, between seven and ten years ago, they set up a website and I got a notice that they wanted to list us on their data base for those who visited the website to have access to our work. My line of work got mis-placed int their directory…and numerous emails asking to be placed in the textile arts never happened. I gave the link to my own website, and checked periodically to see if I attracted any page views from their site…only very rarely did I notice being referred from thei site. I never got any business from their referral.

    That is my only association with the organization. I have no idea what they could do to promote local artisans. We already have the Southern Highlands Handicrafts Guild and there are now many venues where we can sell our work locally. Kress, Woolworth Walk, various galleries…and the internet.

    I just have to wonder what it is they have ever done for us? It’s always been a puzzelment to me. Maybe someone from that organization could enlighten us, in clear English.

    Or were they just using the local creative community as a way to get grants?????

  5. “Reeling”? I don’t think most of us are “reeling.” Perhaps a select few, who may have been recipients of some benefits.

    The recent link by “MediaWatcher” only intensifies my questions as to what they actually did for our local crafts community.

  6. Sam H Wood

    Since only one of the earlier comments here actually addresses the news reported in the MountainX article to which they are addressed I will submit that the response solicited from Mr. Bill Lehnert begs several questions levied by the well credentialed and concerned members of the arts’ community also quoted in the article. What are Mr. Lehnert’s credentials? And what is the hidden agenda here? The HMiA community deserves to know why executive director Geraldine Plato was dismissed with no warning signs and to the yes, perceived and real dismay of the artist community, the HMiA staff who continue to pursue their program agendas under tremendous duress and in fact contrary to his statement do NOT support his position, many private and institutional funders of the organization who have summarily withdrawn support for the organization, standing and prospective board members who have resigned or thought better of their intentions given this action, etc.. etc.. etc.. As in the current wave of political war in this country, why are the people who are actually capable and motivated to implement positive change forced to the daily mundane task of answering to the sick politics of the self-interested opposition when they could be all about getting the job done? Ms. Plato should be reinstated and these overstepping board members summarily dismissed to their better futures.

  7. Sam H Wood

    Pehaps Davyne perpetuates a grudge that could have been bridged some time ago with a little more personal effort on her part. While Handmade has moved on in their corporate role and are in fact serving a high percentage of local artists and craftspeople with their multilateral programs maybe Davyne is a little lost in the swirl. But there is always hope!

  8. Oh Puh-leeze. How can one have a grudge agaonst an organization that one only had momentary exposure to? Most folks have much better things to do. Let’s not resort to anonymously posted personal attacks. It’s destroys your credibility immediately.

    I’d STILL like a concrete answer as to what they actually do or did for the local artisans. It’s a large community with many venues. If even 10% of the local artisans would respond as to how they were assisted or promoted, I’d be willing to back down & give them some credit.

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