Handwringing over HandMade

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."

Perplexed

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 rsulock@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 113.

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11 thoughts on “Handwringing over HandMade

  1. Carrie

    When I saw the first article about this I went to their website because I had never heard of them. I am a crafter/seamstress and make/sell my goods (mostly because I love it).
    I’m not trying to knock them but what exactly do they do? I really don’t know even after looking at their site. There were many ambiguous references to helping the hand-made community but I couldn’t find any specific thing they did. (Except for the “donate” link:)
    If you can help with some info on them I would appreciate it!

  2. ashevillelokel

    HandMade in America is a non-profit organization devoted to the promotion of Western North Carolina’s handmade culture in the fields of education, tourism, business, and government. HandMade is craftspeople, community leaders, educators and business people joining together in active partnerships to promote and develop the region’s handcraft industry. Their mission is “to celebrate the hand and the handmade; to nuture the creation of traditional and contemporary crafts; to revere and protect our resources; and to preserve and enrich the spiritual, cultural and community life of our region.”

  3. Their mission is “to celebrate the hand and the handmade; to nuture the creation of traditional and contemporary crafts; to revere and protect our resources; and to preserve and enrich the spiritual, cultural and community life of our region.”

    Yeah, but what do they DO for all us local traditional and contemporary craftpeople and artisans?

    After giving them the initial information about my finances, back in the early 90’s, so they could make their case about how much we actually contribute to the local economy, I’ve heard very little from them. They went on to collect some pretty hefty grants and donations with that info, they collected.

    I still think they use a few high profile artisans,(which they may actually do the above statement for), as bait for grants & fundraising…and that’s it. Prove me wrong, please.

  4. Carrie

    Davyne I’m with you. Ashevillelokel I read all that stuff too and it SOUNDS great. But it really doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t tell me anything. What have the actually done?

  5. Arts Consumer

    Don’t know why those who don’t seem to know what HandMade has accomplished haven’t done some simple research on the Internet. HandMade appears to operate more as a community/regional development organization (like AdvantageWest?), which works at a “macro-level,” rather than at the “micro-level” of assisting individual artists. That used to be the job of the Asheville Area Arts Council. (And what’s happened with them?) The Southern Highland Handicraft Guild also works to benefit individual artists. Have the people who say “no one has done anything for me” investigated the resources, applied to join the Guild, taken courses at Mountain BizWorks?

    But also puzzled why HandMade’s former communications director, Janiece Meek, hasn’t made the case for the organization. Ms. Sulock might have talked some in her article about the group’s accomplishments, which are numerous.

  6. Batensmack

    As an arts ed coordinator in this area, I can tell you that HandMade does a lot of things. HandMade hosts workshops, led by local artists and craftspeople, for teachers, students, and the community. They write and organize grants so that artists and crafters can work doing residencies in schools. They contribute to and participate in arts advocacy for artists. They work closely with the local and state arts councils to provide opportunities for artists and craftspeople to showcase their work. It has been, in my experience, one of the most stable local resources for teachers who are interested in integrating the arts, particular local arts and crafts, into their curriculum.

    For our school, for example, they have written grants to the North Carolina Arts Council that benefitted our school, their organization, and local artists, poets, and craftspeople. They have held workshops where teachers have learned techniques for building books, baskets, quilts, photography, etc.

  7. I couldn’t help but notice neither of the rebuttal comments used their real names.

    FYI: Handmade had the information and resources to reach out to all people in the creative field to inform us of what they were doing, or could do. When they needed information from us, they sure knew how to get in touch. They could have easily sent out emails, they have all our digital info on hand….least they did when they set up the website. No notices of workshops, grants, visiting artists etc. EVER came to my email box…much less snail mail. They only contacted me when they needed information.

    To say it’s our fault because we didn’t pursue what Handmade had to offer or was doing for the community is ludricrous.

  8. Jen

    I think the problem that many local craftsmen and women have is that there is not an agency to help them directly. The money that they receive is distributed by them into what events/art projects they see fit.
    I don’t think anyone but the arts council (regional annual grants) will dish out money to artists based on need alone.

  9. I cannot speak for anyone else………I never expected anyone to just give me money. Handmade in America included. I can make my own money…that is what being a professional is about.

    The Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild has a place for the locals to exhibit and sell….that is a direct and understandable benefit.
    Here is their link…it’s very clear what they do:
    http://www.southernhighlandguild.org/

    Here is HIA’s mission statement. Sounds very flowery and good, but still I like to see the results.

    http://www.handmadeinamerica.org/about/mission.php

  10. Carrie

    Arts Consumer: I think if you read my post you would understand that I read their entire website and still don’t know what they do! If their own site doesn’t make it clear what they do or have done I’m not going to waste my time searching for it.
    To the other posters, I’m not trying to offend you or be difficult but nothing you have said tells me anything concrete that this organization does/ has done.

  11. Dwayne

    The Arts Guild is really, really hard go get into and that can take years.

    HandMade perhaps needs to be more transparent — what money comes in, where does it go, lists of project (specifics, names, places etc). Put it on the web site. In these times of less money to go around, people look for that.

    I wonder if money was tight, and finger-pointing was part of this (not unusual in this ‘recession’). What a shame the Board of Directors couldn’t have found a way to have handled this situation better in some way, it’s obvious there are bad feelings now with donors and members, and it seems ‘top down’. I wonder what Becky thinks about all this.

    The best nonprofits (with low overhead and most effective use of money) seem to be moving towards increased transparency, even posting their financial statements (with links to specific projects and details) online. Why not? It’s scary and problematic for boards (people will call! people will complain and have opinions!) so the status quo (an existing board, for ex.) would reasonably be reluctant, but these days transparency = a real-world assurance of integrity. Everything else is just words. Donors names and other private matters don’t need to be posted, just specifics and details about projects. If afraid to post details, maybe they could examine, what are we afraid of?

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