CLAYTON — A decade ago when Leslie W. Rowland was considering applying for the executive director job at the Thousand Islands Arts Center, she asked to see its five-year strategic plan.
“Everybody sort of looked at each other,” she said. “That fall, in 2013, we did our first five-year strategic plan. We just finished our third one in September.”
Ms. Rowland is now planning for retirement and days of no strategy. She will mark her last day at TIAC on May 31. She can leave knowing a solid plan is in place and her accomplishments have made the nonprofit stronger. But she credits the TIAC board of directors and its employees for its success.
“The community you find in the north country is unique,” Ms. Rowland said Wednesday morning during an interview at the TIAC on John Street. She was joined by new Executive Director Kathleen M. Ferguson.
“When I got here, I quickly recognized, first, the board support has been unbelievable,” Ms. Rowland said. “It doesn’t matter what you need done. I mean, two of my trustees were out pulling weeds one night before an opening. Whatever you ask them to do, they do. For the staff, we’ve had virtually no turnover in 10 years. We’ve had one person leave, and that’s because she went to Alaska because her husband got transferred. We’re not the richest organization in town, but it’s that spirit that’s unique to the arts center.”
The Thousand Islands Arts Center — Home of the Handweaving Museum — is an educational institution focused on preserving the skills of traditional artists and artisans and supporting the heritage arts. It maintains a year-round arts curriculum, a permanent handwoven textile collection and library, and two dedicated studios for weaving and pottery.
Its 2023 class catalog features a wide array of learning opportunities for all ages, from the beginning weaving project “Bread Basket With Warming Stone” (Aug. 11) to the three-day “Conquering Watercolor” with David Becker (July 19-21).
The TIAC also hosts an after-school arts program for students in grades K-8 and “Kids Camps” during the summer at Christ Episcopal Church in the village.
“One of the things that I’m really proud of is that we have created a scholarship program where any child can come here for class, after school or summer camps, tuition free if needed,” Ms. Rowland said.
TIAC’s two galleries — the Bobbie Trimble Gallery and the Catherine C. Johnson Gallery — display a range of exhibitions from local and national artists.
“We’ve got more artists involved and have had more exhibitions,” Ms. Rowland said. “When I came here, they had two exhibitions a year. Now, it’s six to eight, year-round.”
Current exhibitions are “The Art of Millinery: Hats by Sally Caswell,” on display through July 1 and “Sonja Wahl, Curator Emerita: A Look Back,” running through May 31. Next up: “Among the Thousand Islands: The Work of Frank Taylor,” June 7 to July 1.
The center operates the only handweaving museum in the country and an annual weaving conference. Handweaving is where the TIAC’s roots are. The center began as the Thousand Islands Craft School founded in Clayton in 1966 by Emily Kent Post, a retired teacher from Princeton, New Jersey, and summer resident of Grindstone Island. She saw the possibility of making Clayton a destination for people interested in history and the arts.
“She felt there needed to be something for the women to do in this community while the men were over playing with their engines and boats at the Antique Boat Museum,” Ms. Rowland said. “She was a weaver and started the craft school. It grew into a craft school for all heritage arts.”
Ms. Post served as director for 10 years and established the school as a leading institution in the field of craft education. A weaver herself, her contacts resulted in donations of several personal collections from prominent weavers across the country. These collections became the nucleus of the current center, which was granted a state museum charter in 1990. Ms. Post, a 1935 master of arts graduate of Columbia University, died in 1978.
A likeness of Ms. Post carved out of a section of locust tree stands in front of the TIAC building. The sculpture, created by artist Gregory J. Lago who died earlier this month, was dedicated in 2004.
‘MEMBERS STEPPING UP’
The events and programs at TIAC require money through grants and other fundraising, which is also something Ms. Rowland felt important to address during her tenure.
“When I came here, I found that it was hard for the arts center to raise money,” she said. “You’ve got TILT (Thousand Islands Land Trust) that’s going to save the land and they do a great job. You’ve got Save the River and they’re going to save the water, and they’ve got big donors and big budgets. But it seems that art always came in a distant third. That’s something we’ve worked very hard on changing and have been successful at.”
Earlier this year, TIAC was awarded a $30,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to support the recovery of the nonprofit arts and culture sector harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council awarded $90 million since last spring to artists and organizations across the state. When word came of the grant, Ms. Rowland said in a news release, “While there was improvement in 2021, there were lingering effects on our operations last year. This award will help TIAC to continue its recovery from COVID-19.”
The first year of the pandemic in 2020 hit businesses and nonprofits particularly hard. The TIAC was also shut down and quiet during a lot of that time — perhaps too quiet, its supporters thought.
“During COVID in 2020, we had our best year ever,” Ms. Rowland said. “We canceled all of our events, and on the balance sheet, we had our best year ever. It was because of our members stepping up. They didn’t want to see this place fail. We made big cuts right away, which I think was unique for our organization. Our members stepped up with big donations.”
The TIAC managed to keep its staff of four full-timers and two part-timers during the pandemic.
Ms. Rowland said that the TIAC now works with a contractor who has been assisting with grant funding.
“There’s a lot of money out there from private foundations that correlate well with our mission,” she said. “We just got a grant from a foundation in New York City, and when you look at a list of their grantees, it’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and our little old arts center got almost $10,000 for the fiber exhibition this summer.”
In its latest five-year plan, Ms. Rowland said the TIAC has addressed an issue it has been “talking about” for years.
“We’ve got to have some kind of expansion on this campus,” she said. “This building is from the late 1800s. We’re continuing to work on what that … is going to look like, whether it’s going to be some sort of an addition out back, or a new building someplace.”
Ms. Rowland said that among issues faced with the TIAC building, built in 1877 by Clayton banker and former boat builder Jacob Putnam, there’s no elevator and more classroom space is needed.
BACK TO HER ROOTS
Ms. Ferguson, the new TIAC executive director, is returning to the Thousand Islands area. She grew up in Redwood and graduated from Alexandria High School. But after graduating from the University at Buffalo, she was posed with a question that sent her west. “I had a summer roommate who said, ‘I’m moving to Denver. Do you wanna come?’ We packed our cars. I’ve been out there for many years.”
Ms. Ferguson brings many years of nonprofit experience in several areas including development, marketing, finance and grant research. She has also served in a multitude of leadership roles throughout her career.
Most recently, she was an independent contractor working in event planning and marketing. She also was an emergency services worker for the city and county of Denver and Pontem LLC, and part of a team that provided more than 200,000 COVID-19 tests for Denver and surrounding area residents. Prior to that, she was the Women and Children’s Practice administrator at Denver Health, a comprehensive, integrated health system founded in 1860, for eight years.
“I’ve been looking for opportunities to get back to the east coast to be closer to my family,” Ms. Ferguson said. “Denver has lovely climate all year round, a lot of sunshine and of course the mountains are majestic. I miss the water here.”
When applying for her new job and during the interview process, Ms. Ferguson became impressed with the TIAC’s scope — from classes to conferences.
“I was just amazed that for such a small community how robust the offerings were and how successful the organization was,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever come into a position where I’ve felt more welcomed. The staff is so competent and know their jobs. I can think of smaller nonprofits that you come in and there’s so much to do — chaos! And of course, there are so many things to do and so many opportunities and we’ve been talking about that already. I didn’t really anticipate things to be in such great shape.”
“One thing I felt was important was to find someone who was either living in the north country or from the north country so they would be vested,” Ms. Rowland said of the search she helped conduct with the TIAC board. “I’ve seen so many times an organization brings in a new director in July. It’s gorgeous out, it’s fun and then they have their first January. And they think, ‘Oh God — what am I doing here?’”
She added that Ms. Ferguson’s experience was a main factor in hiring her. “I’m not an artist. I can barely draw a stick figure. I felt when I came here that it was more important to have marketing, communication, some finance background skills. I felt that’s what would help this organization and Kathleen has all of that.”
Ms. Rowland was at first hesitant to move to Clayton to become TIAC executive director. She became director on Jan. 1, 2014, six months after she was named interim executive director. Her husband, Frederick H. “Fritz” Hager, was at the time director of the Antique Boat Museum. Ms. Rowland had her own marketing and events planning business in the Mohawk Valley and maintained their home there. “I stayed down there and we rented a place in the village,” she said.
Even though she visited the Thousand Islands area since she was a toddler, she was adamant in staying where she was. “I said, ‘I’ll come up there, but I’m not going to live there. No way.’”
But two of her close friends were on the TIAC board and Ms. Rowland offered her services as a volunteer to support the nonprofit. She then attended a development meeting.
“Three months later, the executive director resigned,” Ms. Rowland recalled. “The same two people who were my friends said, ‘Would you consider being the interim executive director?’”
She agreed to try it out, challenges and all.
In retirement, Ms. Rowland plans to stay in the area and looks forward to volunteering at TIAC. “This is home now,” she said.
She and her husband have two children, twins Peter and Gigi. Peter works for a nonprofit in the tech sector in the Capital District and Gigi is a software engineer in northern Virginia.
She has a few more days to clean out her desk, but when she does, the task may reveal a poignant memento.
“When I first got here, my college roommate, who doesn’t live far away, gave me the book, ‘The Little Engine That Could,’” she said. “I kept it in my drawer for years. It may still be there. It just reminded me of this place. It still does. I’ll miss that.”
n WHAT: Thousand Islands Arts Center, 314 John St., Clayton.
n MISSION: A nonprofit educational institution concerned with preserving the skills of traditional artists and artisans and supporting the heritage arts.
n CLASSES: Range from children’s crafts to painting and jewelry.
n STUDIOS: Pottery and weaving.
n GALLERIES: The Bobbie Trimble Gallery and the Catherine C. Johnson Gallery.
n UPCOMING EVENTS OF NOTE: 28th annual Weaving History Conference, Oct. 23-25; three days over Zoom. 1000 Islands Art & Craft & Antique Festival, Aug. 12 and 13, Cerow Recreation Park, Clayton.
n MEMBERSHIP: Levels range from $40 for individuals to $5,000 for the Sonja Wahl Society.
n MORE INFO: Go to tiartscenter.org
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