Door County Art News: Creating a Niche

Elizabeth Meissner-Gigstead is the newly appointed Executive Director for the Francis Hardy Center for the Arts.

Every business and organization on the peninsula wrestles with change. Change is something we’d all love to do, but like most good things, it takes time and patience.

Not-for-profit organizations present an interesting irony – they often lack the money and resources that is often necessary for change, and yet many Door County non-profits continue to impress with interesting programs, challenging art exhibits, and thought-provoking lectures. After all, change is the first step to a successful future, and if you’re Elizabeth Meissner-Gigstead, the newly appointed Executive Director for the Francis Hardy Center for the Arts, you step into that future and never look back. Meissner-Gigstead took the helm beginning November 1 and succeeds Jan Comstock, who resigned in June after eight years as the Executive Director.

Meissner-Gigstead has been with the Hardy as the Exhibitions and Community Relations Director since May 2007. Prior to the Hardy, she served as the Artistic Director of the Fairfield Art Center in Sturgeon Bay from 2004 – 2007. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies and Arts Management from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Over the years, she says she has been “very lucky” to have had so many knowledgeable people help her along the way.

“I interned at the Hardy in 2004, and was an employee at the Fairfield from 2002 through my college years until I took the new role after graduation. I was able to absorb a lot of knowledge in those few short years and that exposure, along with the guidance of many individuals, has benefited me immensely,” she says.

Just settling into her new role, Meissner-Gigstead says that the biggest key for the Hardy is to find its niche. “We’ve been so many things to so many people over the years, and it has resulted in us having too wide of a reach.”

The Hardy was founded in 1962 by Francis Howe Hardy, and run as a for-profit gallery under the auspices of the Peninsula Arts Association (PAA) until 2001, when the center became its own non-profit organization.

“The original intent of the Hardy has always been to foster Door County art and artists,” Meissner-Gigstead says, and she would like to see a transition in that direction again. “When the Hardy began, it really was built on the sense that Door County was an ‘artist’s colony.’ I would like to see a shift back to nurturing the artist community and recreating that feeling of having a strong artist network here on the peninsula.”

To begin finding that niche, Meissner-Gigstead and the Hardy Board have been working with Hardy docent Ken Bussard to implement a strategic planning process. During his professional career as an architect, Bussard has assisted many professional service firms, school districts, universities, and not-for-profit entities in crafting strategic plans.

“We currently have about 50 assessments out in the community right now, sent to a wide cross-section of the community that the Hardy serves,” Meissner-Gigstead says. “We’re trying to gauge people’s opinions of the Hardy and what the priorities should be moving forward.” Once the assessments are collected and digested, a planning retreat set for early December will be held to review the results, develop the strategic plan, and most importantly, making the plan a reality to move the organization into the future.

The strategic planning process is crucial in light of the current financial state. Like many other not-for-profit organizations, the Hardy is funded largely through private donations and foundations. Last year, the organization was successful in receiving grant money through granting organizations such as the Wisconsin Arts Board. Although Meissner-Gigstead says that there are many wonderful donors who contribute to the Hardy, she does say that they are taking a very close look at the budget for their next fiscal year.

“I don’t think it’s just the Hardy – I don’t think any non-profit will be able to function the way it did last year,” she says. “We have to be very fiscally responsible, and that means balancing our sources of income and not functioning beyond our means.”

There are many programs that will continue to be a part of the Hardy’s mission, even if the look or organization of those events and programs may change a bit over the next few years. One of the Hardy’s biggest successes, the annual Door County Festival of the Arts, is one of those programs.

“I have many lofty goals for the Hardy,” Meissner-Gigstead laughs, “and some of them are about the festival. I would love to see it expand and become a community-wide event.” She cites the shared participation between Ephraim and Sister Bay for next year’s festival as an example of how the event can continue to grow. The goal for 2009 is to make the current two-day festival a week-long event, but says that the key to making the festival a success is to make it work for everyone in the community. “We have to make it work locally, and I already see a great potential for that next year,” she says.

The Community Mosaic Project and the Hardy’s Exposure to Creativity (ETC) Program are also two programs that will continue to be staples of the Hardy’s programming.

“The Mosaic Project (started in 2008) was successful on so many levels – we had participation from artists from all walks of life be it amateur to professional,” Meissner-Gigstead says. “Not only were we able to share art with community but the project benefited the organization financially, bringing in more than $5,000 to support operations.”

The ETC Program is successful as well; the program consists of two primary components: a series of hands-on workshops and an arts mentor program that offers more in-depth exposure to a specific art field. The workshops whet students’ appetites with introductions to mediums like painting (pastels, oils and watercolors), fibers, photography (digital and black and white), culinary arts, dance (jazz and ballet), theater, poetry, sculpture (glass, wood), music, filmmaking and fashion design and are offered to the entire student body of Gibraltar High School.

Not to be forgotten is the Hardy Gallery. The Hardy will continue to represent and showcase the art and artists of Door County in the graffiti covered warehouse.

"This is the biggest component," Meissner-Gigstead says. "For so many individuals, the graffiti covered warehouse is the Hardy. The gallery is one of the peninsula’s oldest and on average, more than 12,000 visitors flock annually to see the work of our artists.”

With all of the planning going into the Hardy’s future, the one change that Meissner-Gigstead has seen is something she never would have anticipated.

“There are so many people that feel an immense sense of ownership towards the Hardy,” she says. “And that has channeled into this amazing revival of support and excitement toward the organization. It’s heartwarming and wonderful to see – it makes playing a role in the organization that much greater.”