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BIAHC: She's helming the ship after a big wave

Morgan Smith, who joined BIAHC as executive director on Sept. 1. - Brad Camp
Morgan Smith, who joined BIAHC as executive director on Sept. 1.
— image credit: Brad Camp

As Morgan Smith and her family settled in to life on Bainbridge Island, Smith became aware of a phenomenon she hadn’t encountered in any other place she’d lived.

“There was an unusually exuberant part of the town’s culture that wasn’t evident if you were just house hunting,” she said.

Having resided in cities as varied as Chicago, Los Angeles and most recently, Atlanta, Smith was intrigued by the degree to which cultural concerns on Bainbridge were intertwined with the island’s government and economy.

Certainly, there was a “vibe,” evidenced by the high proportion of artists, writers and performers who call the island home, and by the lively arts scene that has resulted from their presence.

But almost more interesting to her was the way in which culture has been institutionalized on the island, in the form of numerous arts and humanities organizations, many of which in some way intersect with the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council.

That’s because in addition to developing its own set of cultural programs, a significant component of BIAHC’s mission is to implement the cultural element of the City of Bainbridge Island’s Comprehensive Plan, through coordination, training, grant administration and funds distribution, among other concerns.

“The city has made it clear for a number of years that the arts are important,” BIAHC board president Claudia Anderson said. “The arts represent jobs, the arts represent tax revenue, the arts make this island a more attractive place to work and do business.”

Unfortunately, as an entity bound to the city, BIAHC was also vulnerable when the city’s financial crisis hit; last spring, the organization learned that it would take a 62 percent cut in city funding.

Anderson said that then-director Zon Eastes looked hard at where BIAHC could and should make cuts and determined that it was really his full-time position that needed to go.

Committed to keeping itself afloat, the 25-year-old BIAHC continued to operate with the assistance of reserve funds; Eastes remained in place until August, after which BIAHC took a month-long furlough, re-opening on Sept. 1.

That is where Smith comes in, taking her place on that day as the organization’s new half-time executive director.

The North Carolina native moved to Bainbridge a year ago when her husband took a job in Seattle with Earthlink. She’d most recently been chief of strategic planning for the City of Atlanta and prior to that, director of fiscal policy, as well as having worked in strategic positions for a variety of other public and private organizations. She also held a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University.

She did not, however, have an arts background. She jokes that while at the start of her rigorous round of interviews at BIAHC she offered polished and finessed responses to that line of questioning, by the end of the process she faced the issue head-on by simply saying, right, I don’t have an arts background.

And that didn’t matter in the end, Anderson said. While BIAHC was initially looking for someone versed in arts funding, they were also looking for a strong and experienced manager, someone who could show the city, and potential financial backers, that the organization had a solid base from which to build a stable financial future.

Which falls precisely into Smith’s zone of interest and expertise. She notes that she didn’t have a background in local government when she went to work for the City of Atlanta, either – but she lived in the city, cared about the city and believed that her skill set could be of use in assessing city problems and solutions. The same principles applied in her new home.

“It’s more responding to what the place is about, and wanting to participate in that,” she said.

Although her tenure is still brand new, Smith has identified a significant goal for BIAHC to determine a way to achieve clean structure and transparency in its processes, for example, the process of deciding which organizations are the best recipients of available dollars. She’s not biased toward one type of organization or another, referring to a prior scenario with the City of Atlanta by way of example:

“I’m agnostic about whether we move the zoo or not. But by God, at the end of the day we’re going to be able to tell people why we did,” she said.

The other facet of BIAHC Smith wants to shepherd is the significant programming that the organization puts forward itself, for example the Arts Education Consortium. That effort brings multi-cultural arts outfits into the Bainbridge Island Public School District on an ongoing basis – everything from Indian dance companies to Indonesian puppetry – focusing not just on performance but on educating the students and teachers about their history and cultural significance in a hands-on way.

If Smith were to create a Venn Diagram titled, “Who should care about the arts council,” she could start with, say, the 40 or so area poets showcased through the organization’s support of National Poetry Month, and move on up to the thousands of school children, educators and parents who benefit from the education consortium’s ongoing programming.

“I think there are any number of compelling ways a member of the community should care about the arts council,” she said.

Dealing with the budget cuts was a “prolonged and traumatic process,” Anderson said, but she couldn’t be happier about what Smith brings to the table and said she’s hopeful about the future of BIAHC and its ongoing significance to the community. And she agrees with Smith’s assessment that the worst is over.

“The tsunami’s gone by,” Smith said. “Now, we’re on the beach with a lot of lumber and wet boxes. The question is, what do you build next? I think there’s a lot there.”

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For more information about the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council, see www.artshum.org.

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