Shock waves continue in the wake of Geraldine Plato's January dismissal as director of HandMade in America. While it's not uncommon for a nonprofit's board and executive director to part ways, some in the local arts community are irate over Plato's abrupt and unexpected exit — and the lack of any explanation.
The controversial move has sparked a flurry of letters, both in the Asheville Citizen-Times and directly to the organization's board. Former board member Elizabeth Russell was installed as interim director after Plato, a longtime area resident and former assistant director of the Penland School of Crafts, was let go.
"You have made a tragic mistake," Rob Pulleyn, a prominent figure in the local arts community, declared in a letter to HandMade's board of directors. "Instead of the board trying to 'move on,' I hope you review what you have done and do whatever you can to rectify your awful decision. Without doing so, you may find that you, in fact, can't 'move on' because you have lost the faith and support of the very people you are charged with serving," wrote Pulleyn, who serves on the boards of several arts-related organizations, including the Asheville Art Museum.
In a written reply to Pulleyn that was copied to Xpress in response to questions about Plato's firing, HandMade board Chair Bill Lehnert said his organization can't comment on personnel matters.
"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," Lehnert wrote.
"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."
A top-down decision?
Born in the early '90s out of a grass-roots effort in the local craft community, HandMade was charged with spearheading a different kind of economic development. Rather than recruiting new businesses to the area, the nonprofit works to support and extend the existing "place-based" craft economy. After 14 years at the helm, founding Executive Director Becky Anderson announced she was leaving in 2007. The board hired Plato on March 1, 2008, following an extensive search guided by paid consultants.
But the silence surrounding her departure runs counter to the group's original mission, says sculptor Stoney Lamar of Saluda, who's been involved with the nonprofit since the beginning.
"When Becky started HandMade, she made a point to engage large groups of craftspeople in the area in the development of the organization," notes Lamar, who now works with a foundation that has awarded grants to HandMade. "There were a lot of people who were very skeptical, and slowly, [Anderson] won us over. We became convinced this would be a grass-roots-run organization. That's not how this feels; this feels like a very top-down decision."
Specifically, the suddenness, the silence and the "circling the wagons" afterward, says Lamar, have led the foundation to reconsider its financial support of HandMade.
"We've let the board know that until we do see that they have righted the ship, then we would be reluctant to entertain any more grants from them," he reports. "We've scheduled a meeting with the new interim director to express our concerns about their stewardship of the grant they currently have, and our concern about future grants they might apply for," he says.
The HandMade staff, meanwhile, was "totally shocked" by the board's actions, says one staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We knew there were some personal disagreements between Geraldine and some of the board members," but it was startling that Plato was asked to leave so quickly, with two board members escorting her out of the building.
"Why didn't they just say, 'Look, it's not working for us; maybe it's time for you to think about going in six months?'" the staffer wonders. "That's the thing that's so frustrating. And Geraldine has long ties to the craft community here."
Last November, the board had adopted a new strategic plan after a lengthy development process, Lehnert explained. "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."
But that's not enough, says Andrew Glasgow, who's also been involved with HandMade since its inception. "I implore you to explain yourselves to your community," wrote Glasgow, the former executive director of the American Craft Council, in a letter to Handmade's board. "The folks who support you and benefit from you are perplexed; some are frightened, and many of us are very upset. This is our organization, and I, for one, don't appreciate that the board has chosen to operate in a fashion that damages all the work we have done these past several years."
Reached at her Spruce Pine home, Plato said her concern is for the region's arts community. Rather than talk about what happened, she said she hopes HandMade will move forward successfully. But for that to happen, they'll need to focus on "fostering a collaborative partnership between board and staff that is consistent, comprehensive and inspired," Plato maintains.
"Make a sincere commitment to the leadership transition," she advises. "There must be full and genuine support by the board to take HandMade through the transition from a founding director's singular vision to one that broadly reflects the community's needs."
The board should also "stabilize and diversify" its funding base, Plato maintains. "HandMade has to be absolutely clear with funders about their goals. Building trustworthy, communicative relationships with funders will be crucial for the organization's future."
In the meantime, says Plato, "I'm not going anywhere; I'm not leaving Western North Carolina. I'm very clear about my strengths and what I can give to this community, and I'm going to keep doing it."
Rebecca Sulock can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 113.