New ArtsQuest CEO looks for sustainability

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New president and CEO Kassie Hilgert says ArtsQuest has a ‘real tangible economic impact’ on the region.
New president and CEO Kassie Hilgert says ArtsQuest has a ‘real tangible economic impact’ on the region. - (Photo By Christopher Holland)

“Imagine that.”

That’s what new ArtsQuest president and CEO Katherine E. “Kassie” Hilgert wants people to say when they walk away from an event or program held by the nonprofit arts and cultural organization.

Hilgert, 42, last week was named to replace ArtsQuest founder Jeff Parks when he retires in January. She takes the reins of Bethlehem-based ArtsQuest, a key economic driver in the Lehigh Valley with events and programs that annually draw 1.3 million attendees – many from out of the region – pumping an estimated $40 million to $41 million into the market.

“[The] grand vision for me would be that we have a circular, ongoing conversation with the community and that we’re always refreshing our programming,” Hilgert said. “… Our ultimate goal is to create an experience for the attendee.”

She said that ArtsQuest will focus on sustainability, including generating more revenue and “getting as many people exposed to our programming both at the Banana Factory and here at our festivals.” And it will stay focused on economic development in Bethlehem, to “work with as many partners as we can to try to inject the positive energy and impact that providing arts and cultural programming can do.”

ArtsQuest operates the 10-day annual Musikfest music and arts festival – which can draw 1 million visitors – and operates the Banana Factory visual arts studio and SteelStacks entertainment campus, both in Bethlehem. ArtsQuest also operates a seasonal and popular holiday gift shop known as Christkindlmarkt, among other initiatives.

Hilgert, of Hanover Township, Northampton County, has been with ArtsQuest since 2008 and was appointed senior vice president of marketing and advancement in 2010. Before ArtsQuest, she spent four years at Air Products as manager of community relations and philanthropy, and she also has worked at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Medstar Television Inc.

Last week, the graduate of Salisbury High School and Penn State sat down with Lehigh Valley Business for an exclusive interview. She talked about ArtsQuest’s goals, challenges and future.

Lehigh Valley Business: When you joined ArtsQuest in 2008, what were your aspirations?

Kassie Hilgert: … I started out as the vice president of advancement, which is really overseeing sponsorships. For me, I used to be on the other side of the table as the manager of community relations and philanthropy at Air Products. My job was to evaluate proposals from nonprofits and to help support the community through financial donations.

I was really excited having had that experience in seeing all of these different proposals, and what I had looked at and evaluated was, “What could I bring to this job to help separate ArtsQuest and show more intrinsic value so a sponsor could actually have some of their needs met?” beyond just what I had seen so often.

I was excited to be able to do something with ArtsQuest that allowed a sponsor to get tangible benefits besides just building a reservoir of good will. How could they build business share? … How could they get more door traffic? … So for me, that was a really exciting prospect about coming here.

Secondly, I had been on the LVEDC [Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.] board for about 10 years, so I really developed a love for economic development, and that’s what for me made ArtsQuest so attractive.

Our mission is not just promoting arts and culture. It’s promoting arts and culture in a way that promotes economic development in a blighted area or in an inner city area. What was so intriguing to me was, “How do you use arts and culture to drive additional business development?”

LVB: What are a couple of your most important achievements at ArtsQuest?

Hilgert: I think more than the individual achievements it’s been the organizational achievements for me. When I first joined here, we were just getting knee-deep into the SteelStacks project and getting fundraising for that and doing final designs. I think it was seeing that project and this organization expand exponentially from a talent perspective, from a creative perspective, a problem-solving perspective, to be able to bring that project to fruition and open.

And it happened because we had so many public and private partners. … So, what I was always amazed by is that it wasn’t just someone who came out with an idea down here, because there are a lot of great ideas. But then you have to get everyone else to say, “I’ll forgo every other agenda or other idea I have to rally behind and make this happen because I think it’s the best idea.” …

So, for me, I thought it was a huge accomplishment not just for ArtsQuest, but the entire community that this [Steelstacks] ever opened.

Past that, I think one of the more significant achievements [is] I’ve been thrilled with some of the partnerships we’ve created on a national level. But, I think what was most important was that when we came out of the gate in 2008, we just had too much programming. And the reason why we had too much programming is because we couldn’t find another organization like us. So, we could benchmark what the cinema looked like, but not the cinema within a performing arts center across the street from an outdoor pavilion that also ran Musikfest and Christkindlmarkt.

We came out of the gate with a lot of programming and when we had to change because of the floods of 2011 and 2012, I was really amazed by how we as a team rolled up our sleeves and knew there was no silver bullet and decided to sit around a table and tackle this problem day by day. We’re still recovering from some of those floods; we’ve wiped out our operating reserves and one of our goals from a board perspective is to rebuild those, but certainly this has been one of our better years from a sustainability standpoint.

LVB: Tell us more about your background before ArtsQuest, and how your prior experience might fit into the newly appointed role?

Hilgert: At Air Products, I got tremendous experience on a national and North American level. I was fortunate in my job both as a senior communications specialist where I supported the business units from a PR [public relations] perspective and then in the community relations and philanthropy department, to be able to work with very smart people who had a global perspective and view.

I think what I really learned at Air Products was the importance of discipline and processes. When you have those in place and when they are right, everyone knows how things are supposed to be done in the safest, most efficient way. Then you free up your time to be creative. You can put your free time to attention for new programs, or whatever it is, so that’s something I would like to indoctrinate more here. …

Before Air Products, I was at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network as the director of marketing for several years. There I learned about mission at a nonprofit. … I learned from there the importance of mission when it came to creating a common vision and a common purpose for people to be able to rally around and how powerful that can be. …

LVB: Upon taking the role as president and CEO, what has the ArtsQuest board of directors instructed you to do?

Hilgert: I think that what’s been so great in this whole process is that I wrote our strategic plan for 2014-2015, so we’re in that plan now. That plan has sustainable sizzle, so we’re really revolving our next several years around sustainability. So, when you have those rain days at Musikfest, it’s not throwing a weight on one side of the see-saw where everything goes off-balance.

We’re going to focus on that sustainability by increasing access to the arts, and that’s getting as many people exposed to our programming both at the Banana Factory and here at our festivals, obviously for the enrichment that it provides in their lives, as that’s a central part of our mission, and it also helps with our sustainability – because they may come down to the majority of our programming which is free, see that and say, “Wow, I saw the Musikfest Café when it was free at Musikfest, what a great venue. My favorite band is coming and it’s a ticket event and I’d love to go …” That’s one of the ways we help build sustainability.

The other area is really staying focused on the economic development on the South Side [of Bethlehem]. We’ve been very fortunate both on the North Side and the South Side to help with that reinvigoration process, and if we can stay on the forefront of that development and work with as many partners as we can to try to inject the positive energy and impact that providing arts and cultural programming can do when it’s done in a density way.

If you can build a pipeline of artists, a pipeline of technicians that have to support those artists through audiovisual, those are all things that we think are very important for the economic development of the South Side.

And the third one truly is about sustainability. … What vehicles do we not have in place right now that would help us generate additional revenue, whether it’s fundraising or earned income. Those are our three main areas of focus.

LVB: Big picture, what is your vision for ArtsQuest?

Hilgert: While I think it’s important to have a vision, I think it’s really important to have a horizon. A vision sometimes to me can denote that I’m looking this one way. A horizon lets you look out over a landscape of the community that you serve and be able to find pockets that you can fill.

For me, the grand vision of ArtsQuest is that we stay on the cutting edge, responding and being a mirror to how this community is changing, and engaging those communities in a way that we create a circular conversation. When we’ve got a growing, emerging community in the Lehigh Valley and we are engaged with them and they’re saying “Here’s what we’d love to see …” If we can deliver that, that’s where I think people outside of that community would love to come and see that.

Grand vision for me would be that we have a circular, ongoing conversation with the community and that we’re always refreshing our programming. It’s when people walk away and they say “Imagine that,” that’s what I want them to be able to do. And we’re very fortunate that our members, our sponsors and our volunteers get that, too. Our ultimate goal is to create an experience for the attendee.

LVB: What are the specific initiatives that you want to see occur sooner rather than later?

Hilgert: I think it’s again going back to that strategic plan. What are some of those things that we can implement that we aren’t doing now? What unexpected thing can we put at Christkindlmarkt that blends the traditions that families are used to going down and seeing, like the ice carver, with something that might be very different visually, or from an interactive standpoint.

Short term for us, it’s going to be how we can also really maximize all the great work that the redevelopment authority is doing with the coming Hoover-Mason Trestle. That’s going to be a pretty tremendous asset down here at SteelStacks. I think that’s going to have a big impact on the type of person that might come here from outside of this area, for not just our programming.

LVB: How do arts and culture directly stimulate the local economy?

Hilgert: When we talk about using arts and culture for economic impact, we see that Musikfest has a $31 million impact on this area. You look at the first weekend of Musikfest, there’s almost no hotel room available in the Lehigh Valley. …

Year round, we’re at about a $40-$41 million economic impact, so it’s critical I think for people to understand that while arts and culture adds greatly to the quality of life, it has a real tangible economic impact in that area where the programming is offered.

LVB: What challenges does ArtsQuest face, and how does it overcome them?

Hilgert: I think our big challenge is sustainability, and it’s not unique to us. But, I think it is unique in the sense that we have a lot of opportunity to grow our messaging as a nonprofit.

We’re very entrepreneurial and people know us for being entrepreneurial; we adapt quickly, that’s part of our culture. We like to think that we’re creative and take risks, but with this campus [at SteelStacks] and where we are right now, we don’t have the reserves or the capital reserves to give us that flexibility.

For us, sustainability and being able to do it in a way that taps into the community’s interaction with us.

Also making some capital improvements to the buildings we own, like the Banana Factory and the Turn and Grind Shop and keeping the ArtsQuest Center and the visitors center up to snuff as world-class facilities. You’ve got a world-class view, and your buildings have to reflect that.

I think short term, it is sustainability for us, and raising awareness.

LVB: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess, and why?

Hilgert: Hire smarter people around you. I think what’s key and what I always was intrigued by when I first met Jeff Parks was that I was meeting this guy who started Musikfest, he built the Banana Factory, came up with Christkindlmarkt, he must be the most avid arts collector, art historian, music lover ever.

And it’s not that he isn’t a true appreciator of the arts ... but, that’s not where his skill was. His skill was in being able to implement a vision.

What he did beyond that was being able to surround himself with people who were the subject experts in the arts. When you are a great leader, you are confident enough in your ability to surround yourself with people that are smarter in subject areas that you need to have in order to be successful.

Your job is to look at the horizon and to the people that you work with and relying on them for their expertise to be able to implement that vision.

To me, a great leader surrounds themselves with extremely smart people.

Lehigh Valley Business: Where do you expect to see ArtsQuest five years from now?

Hilgert: If we are a demonstrated engine of economic development using arts and culture to encourage additional investment and to make this grow out in a way that draws people from all over the nation and all over the world, like Musikfest does now, I think by 2019 we will have seen a lot growth within the city.

We need to look to others to make investments. The impact could be tremendous.

Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland is a researcher for Lehigh Valley Business and blogs on arts and entertainment in the region.

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