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Beyond Coincidence: Catherine Hoke-Gonzales

Everybody comes from somewhere – either here or somewhere else – but in a place like Door County, it can be both here and somewhere else. Take Cathy Hoke-Gonzales, the current Director of the Peninsula Art School (PAS). If you go to www.gbhconsulting.com, the website of the consulting firm she established here with Mariah Goode, you’ll read about several far flung elsewheres in the first paragraph but then in the second paragraph you will read: “Upon return to Door County…” So, the first question is: How does the word “return” apply? In Cathy’s case, her parents had a summer home in Baileys Harbor, coming up from Whitefish Bay, near Milwaukee. So then Door County, for Cathy, is both her past summer home, her present full time home, and also a metaphor – as we’ll soon see.

Now we come to the far flung part. From all the way west at Claremont McKenna College, just northeast of Los Angeles, where she earned a BA with honors in International Relations, to all the way east in Washington DC where she worked with the World Wildlife Fund, as a private consultant to the Agency for International Development, and as a consultant for other multi-national community development organizations. More to the point, as her bio tells us, “She gained extensive experience in grant research, writing, and reporting; project development and management; financial projection; and policy and program research for national and international environmental non-profits.”

It was after these and other endeavors having to do with land use, public policy and the like, that she decided to head back home to Door County (Who wouldn’t after banging heads inside the Beltway?) to think about graduate school. She undertook post-graduate courses dealing with Environmental Policy and Natural Resource Management at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. It was at this time that Cathy became more deeply involved with land use issues, zoning, and local governments until, eventually, she…landed…where?

As the Director of the Peninsula Art School?

Quite right. As Cathy explains it, “I grew up in a family that was very interested in the arts; Saturday morning classes at the Milwaukee Art Museum and things like that and so I came [to the Art School] as a volunteer. At one point they were looking for a development person and because I had done grant writing and fundraising as part of my role with other non-profits I became the development director four years ago.”

Then, on the Ides of May, 2005, Cathy was named Interim Director of the Art School only to rise above her interim status to become director on the following first of July.

Very well, very well, a very energetic lady who seizes the day, as it were, but might this all seem…well, rather incongruous, perhaps even coincidental? Not so, for behind each eventuality in Cathy’s bio there seems to be a “structural” passion. Nearly all of the positions she lists are with non-profit operations, the Peninsula Art School included. In fact, it seems that somewhere along the line, coincidence turned into a calling.

As Cathy describes it, “I was working in Washington DC with World Wildlife Fund and one of the areas that I specialized in was working with smaller NGOs – non-governmental organizations abroad – and helping them develop skills to get the things that they needed. That’s where my interest in non-profit management came from.”

Says Cathy, “I suppose I’m probably an idealist at heart and I find something in the value of the work that non-profits do. Inherently they serve a greater good just beyond the capitalist mentality; they serve a greater good and we all have benefits because they exist. The people who work for non-profits, whether in the arts or the environment, are passionate people. They care about what they do; they’re a joy to work with. They don’t work for the same wages that they work for in the for-profit sector because they believe in what they do; they believe they can make a difference. What a great environment to work in! That’s the bottom line.”

At this point in the interview, we got off on a tangent about non-profit work. The thing is, especially in Door County, the non-profit sector is one of the biggest engines driving our economy. Virtually every performance venue, the adult learning facilities (like PAS, Bjِrklunden, and The Clearing), all of the historical centers, nature centers, and parks (state, county, and town) are non-profit and they are visitor destinations as well. This means that for every $1 spent on ticket sales, tuition, and other user fees, at least $4 are spent on ancillary and support facilities and services. So, in economic value alone, non-profit organizations, no matter what percentage of their income comes in grants and/or gifts, more than justify the investments a community makes in them. As Cathy says, “There’s a reason Harvard University is doing whole seminars in non-profit management.”

All well and good, but I’m still looking for a more complete gestalt, so I ask her, “OK, so now we have art in one hand and the environment in the other. How do they come together?”

Without much of a pause, Cathy answers, “I think that the connection between art and the environment in Door County is there from the beginning. I think that human beings have a need to take our environment and our natural world and recreate it…and whether we do it through sculpture or whether we sit plein air and paint I think it inspires us. It connects us to something other than ourselves. And I think it’s part of the human condition to want to do that. Whether it was cave paintings of buffalo or landscapes of the bluffs of Door County, I think they’re both the same reaction to the world around them.”

“So,” I ask, “would you say that art gives us ways of internalizing our environment?”

“Oh sure,” Cathy replies, “internalizing, interpreting, finding your own place and weight. Whether you do it through abstract or realistic art, it is that dialogue you have with the world around you. [And] I think [that dialogue] allows you to see, to stop and look, really look. In that moment you really begin to see. That’s what art gives you…time in this crazy and frenetic world, a moment to stop and think and see the world around you or see inside of yourself.”

“So it goes both ways?” I ask.

“Absolutely. Both ways,” she agrees. Inside and outside, far-flung and near. Art on the one hand, the environment on the other and each is a metaphor for the other. So, it’s all of a piece for Cathy Hoke-Gonzales. What better way to see things in Door County?