January 25, 2014

Robert Webb: A lasting impact on the arts

— In 2013, the Creative Arts Guild celebrated its 50th anniversary and honored its founders throughout the year. Many organizations venerate the men and women whose vision led to their formation; not enough extend praise to the individuals who sustain those organizations through changes in the community, economic vicissitudes and constantly evolving social trends.

As Terry Tomasello retires as the Creative Arts Guild’s executive director, the community has an opportunity to acknowledge her long and successful stewardship of the Guild and applaud her for saving and growing this unique community resource.

Terry accepted the position at the Creative Arts Guild in 2001, and she and her family moved to Dalton during September of that year. In this area, the third weekend in September means the annual renewal of the Guild’s Festival. In 2001, however, the tragic events of Sept. 11 had left the nation with heavy hearts and lingering uncertainty. Three weeks into her new job, Terry was faced with a major decision: cancel Festival or push forward in a climate of emotional rawness. The pressure to call off Festival was significant.

That month, many major events across the country were postponed or canceled. Terry believed that Festival could bring together a hurting community, and so she pressed ahead. The result was a special and memorable weekend on Sept. 22 and 23. People who had firmly ensconced themselves inside their homes found the inspiration to attend an arts festival. They saw friends. They talked. They ate. Some vented. Some cried. Many voiced their fears and expressed their hope for our nation’s resilience. Smiles appeared. Laughter was heard. On that weekend, all of us of who loved the Guild — who grew up with the Guild — knew that Terry was a person of great courage and strong convictions who was not afraid to make tough choices.

Such challenges were not the only difficult decisions that Terry faced during her many years at the Guild. She accepted the role of executive director based on an unwavering belief in the value of the arts in a community. She did not know when she moved to Dalton that the most pressing challenges she faced were not what exhibits would appear in the gallery or whether dance costumes needed to be updated.

The Guild was in trouble.

In the years after Bernice Spigel retired after decades of exceptional leadership, the Guild struggled to maintain its audience as new sources of entertainment emerged. More local movie screens, video games, the Internet and dozens of new cable networks impacted attendance and revenue, as did the retirement and relocation of many long-term Guild supporters. In an effort to broaden the Guild’s audience, Bernice’s successor had spent a great deal of money on marketing, out-of-town entertainers and large-scale touring exhibits.

Terry arrived at the Guild facing deep debt, with an endowment that had been spent, shrinking membership and class enrollments, a building with many deferred maintenance issues, the perception of the institution as elitist and out of touch, and lingering memories of the “For Sale” sign posted on the property by the previous director. Some people would have bolted at the prospect of turning around such a situation. Terry made the tough choice: she stayed and worked to the point of exhaustion to turn around the Guild’s fortunes.

Throughout her time at the Guild, Terry proved herself to be a tireless worker, a creative and collaborative problem solver and, most importantly, a person capable of transforming an institution into a contemporary arts center with renewed relevance across all segments of the community.

One could write volumes about the artistic successes that Terry fostered in all disciplines during her years at the Guild. Class enrollments have steadily escalated; performers and exhibiting artists are greeted with warm and responsive audiences. Festival has been reinvigorated, and attending “Snow Queen” performances now kicks off the holiday season for hundreds of families. Terry would be the first to acknowledge the importance of Guild staff and instructors, artists, volunteers, board members and donors in making all of these events possible. By the same token, all of those individuals would hail her leadership and unwavering commitment to excellence as critically important to the Guild’s success.

As significant as Terry’s contributions to the Guild’s artistic legacy are, perhaps her most important role has been the creation of a sustainable business model for the institution. Under her guidance, programming has expanded into new disciplines, and traditional disciplines have seen major growth.

During the past five years, the Guild’s revenue from instruction has grown 80 percent, even with the economic malaise that has gripped this area. Overall, the Guild’s revenues have increased almost 60 percent during that time period. If you want to measure Terry’s accomplishments as a leader, note that during the most challenging economy in the past 75 years, Terry grew the Guild’s revenues when many companies — local and national — were closing their doors. Recently, in conjunction with the Guild’s 50th anniversary, the “Golden Givers” campaign provided loyal donors with an opportunity to seed future growth at the institution with more than $600,000 in gifts designated to the Anne Farrow Endowment Fund, a maintenance fund for the building, systems upgrades, program expansion, new equipment, instruction certifications and arts-in-education support. Thanks to Terry’s vision, the Guild is positioned to thrive.

Terry is retiring with an admirable record of artistic achievement, program growth and expansion, and fiscal accountability. Her accomplishments have ensured that the Guild’s 50th anniversary was not just a fond look back at the institution’s storied past but also a spark to chart a positive and meaningful future.

Terry’s tenure was marked by difficult decisions, all of which were made with the Guild’s long-term sustainability at heart. As she retires, the current state of the Creative Arts Guild reinforces just how meaningful her time has been in this community and how her ability to envision and deliver positive change has re-energized the state’s oldest multi-discipline community arts organization.

Terry didn’t start the Guild, but she gave it a new beginning, for which she deserves profound gratitude and respect from the entire community.

Robert Webb served three terms as chair of the Creative Arts Guild’s board of directors. In 2010, the Robert T. Webb Sculpture Garden was opened on the Guild’s grounds.