Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) is looking for a new executive director. “Wait a minute,” you say, “didn’t they just change directors a little while ago? And then again a little while before that?” Well, sort of, but not as such. In fact, the organization hasn’t had an official, full-time, permanent executive director in seven years — since Eric Roth left in 2010.
Most recently, under the title of director of Curatorial & Preservation Affairs, Josephine Bloodgood has been the chief staff member since the summer of 2015, when director of Operations Rebecca Mackey left HHS to move to Oregon. In effect, Mackey had served as interim executive director since Dr. Taylor Stoermer’s nine-month consultancy contract as director of Strategy, Development and Interpretation ended in 2014. Mackey had also held the fort for three years prior to Stoermer’s arrival, following Tracy Doolittle McNally’s stint from 2010 to 2011, also in an “interim” capacity.
“We haven’t done a search for an executive director since 2009,” when Roth gave notice, longtime HHS board chair Mary-Etta Schneider explains. “After starting the search, we discovered that we weren’t attracting the right caliber of people, given the transition we were in. There wasn’t someone who was a good fit for Huguenot Street.”
Part of the problem seven years ago was that the not-for-profit’s physical assets and curatorial responsibilities had outgrown its financial and staff capacities, so it was not in a position to offer the kind of salary that would attract a top-tier museum administrator. “At that time, we were going through a strategic reassessment,” Schneider recalls. “We owned many properties outside Huguenot Street,” including Locust Lawn in Modena, the Harcourt Preserve, the Quaker Meeting House in Plattekill and a 50-acre bird sanctuary. “With a fairly small staff, we didn’t have the financial or people resources to keep all the properties up. So we decided that we’d focus on the core of Huguenot Street, which is really who we are.”
Over the next couple of years, HHS spun off the peripheral properties, reuniting Locust Lawn (and the endowment set up to maintain it) with Locust Grove, the Samuel F. B. Morse Estate in Poughkeepsie; both historic properties had formerly been jointly owned by the Annette Inness Young family trust. The nearby bird sanctuary was part of that package as well. The Harcourt Preserve, now the Nyquist/Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary, was acquired by the Thomas and Corinne Nyquist Foundation, with help from the Open Space Institute. “Tom’s done an amazing job with that,” says Schneider of the former Village of New Paltz mayor, whose home is adjacent to the nature preserve that contains the Wallkill River’s wildlife-rich oxbow. “He walks it every day.”
From 2011 to 2013, Schneider relates, HHS “took a breather,” focusing its resources on repairs to some of the historic stone houses and cataloguing its collections more carefully. The Board of Directors recognized that the organization “had to have a better platform to fundraise,” including more extensive programming with broader appeal to the heritage tourism market. Then, unexpectedly, an Elting descendent named Mary Church Williams — not previously a sustaining member — left HHS a bequest of $1.4 million. “It was like a miracle,” says Schneider. “We decided to invest that opportunity in staff.”
It was at that point, in 2013, that HHS undertook a search for a consultant with a national profile to guide the organization through its growing pains, “trying to make the Street come alive.” Dr. Stoermer, who had previously worked at Colonial Williamsburg, ruffled many local feathers in his brief tenure with HHS; Schneider diplomatically characterizes him as a “strong personality,” but “a good person to shake things up.”
“It was a major turning point for the organization: the first time we had credentialed staff. Before that, people came up through the ranks. Nobody had a Master’s,” Schneider says. “Taylor left, but the team survived, and functioned very well.” “Most of his hires are still here,” adds Kaitlin Gallucci, Director of Marketing & Communications. “Everyone wanted to keep the momentum going.”
With programming improvements underway, including redesigning the interiors of each of the stops on the Stone House tour to reflect a different era of New Paltz history and populating them with costumed, roleplaying guides, “Visitation numbers doubled in 2014,” Schneider notes. “It went up another 50 percent in 2015 and 30 percent last year.” New staff members reached out to form partnerships with other civic and community organizations, with Huguenot Street now hosting many more annual street festivals and holiday events. “During this time the deficit came down, and visitations and donations started to increase.”
And in 2015, says the board chair, “Another miracle happened. The founder of a Huguenot heritage organization in New York City left us a trust of $400,000.” HHS was finally able to hire a professional development team, and last year the organization finally held its first annual gala, the Fall Harvest Celebration. But in order to take fundraising to the next level, a not-for-profit needs a highly professional, well-connected, full-time executive director. And so the search is on, under the auspices of the New York City-based executive search firm Thomas & Associates, Inc., whose principal, Geri Thomas, has a degree in Museum Studies from NYU and plenty of professional contacts in the world of museums and historic sites. “Geri really is a delight. She sat down with every single staff member and asked them, ‘What are you looking for in an executive director?’” Gallucci notes.
According to the official job description, among other qualifications, “The ideal candidate will have at least seven to ten years of progressively responsible leadership experience in museums, historic sites or in related cultural organizations.” Interviews for the new position are expected to commence in February, with a decision to be made within four to six months.
Meanwhile, HHS is gearing up for a busy 2017 season, with a brighter financial picture enabling additional enhancements to its programmatic offerings. Gallucci says that this year, for the first time, the site will provide educational programs for all age groups, from preschool to college internships. Recent efforts to unveil the crucial roles of women, African slaves and indigenous Munsee people in Huguenot Street’s history have proven popular with the public and will be expanded. Tours will tell “more stories about women” in the next few years leading up to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, says Schneider. “I’m excited about that.”
And in an exclusive scoop to the New Paltz Times, HHS has just revealed that it has engaged an expert in Native American traditional crafts, Barry Keegan, to build a ten-by-20-foot wigwam of cedar, grass and bark on the lawn between the DuBois Fort and the Jean Hasbrouck House. It is expected to be ready to visit by opening day. “This is another great transforming time for us. It’s like the stars lined up, just when we were ready,” says Schneider. “It’s up to us to make history engaging.”