Jessica Gelter is a dedicated nonprofit leader with experience in community outreach, team leadership, event management, and program development and evaluation. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Boston University’s theater conservatory program, and the Core Certificate in Arts Management from the UMass Arts Extension Service. Jessica is currently the executive director at ArtsAlive!, a nonprofit organization with a mission to support, grow, and connect a sustainable arts landscape in the Monadnock Region. She has been awarded two fellowships through National Arts Strategies: Forward Thinking Fellowship and New England Creative Community Fellowship. She is also a professional artist - and continues that work as a musician, playwright, actress, and theater director. She was also featured on the National Endowment for the Arts website for their 50th anniversary.
Where are you from and what is the arts community like there?
I live in Brattleboro VT and work across the river in South West New Hampshire. The arts scene in Brattleboro is fun - a bit scattered and full of big personalities who make things happen. The arts scene where I work in South West New Hampshire (around Keene) is also very vibrant but no one would guess it. It's actually not on any major highways or train routes, and it doesn’t really have an airport or anything. It’s just a bunch of small New England towns strung together on these windy old roads. But the art here is so awesome - from contemporary experimental sound artists to famous classical portrait painters. It’s a great place to be to find quiet space and create, and connect with others on a intimate scale and at a slower pace.
How did you get into arts management?
I graduated with a fine arts degree in theatre from Boston University, but shortly after dabbling in the industry, I felt like the commercial theatre scene was not for me. The work being presented wasn’t a great vehicle for what I wanted to say artistically, and the process of creating the work was not fulfilling. I got a certificate in arts management so I could pursue leading and making the kind of art I wanted to participate in. I was hired by a local youth theatre shortly thereafter as a publicist and after 6 months, took over a large part of the development work when the Development Director suddenly left. I served on boards of three arts organizations as well. One had a single staff person, one paid contractors but was seasonal, and one was entirely volunteer-run. These organizations ended up being great outlets for creating that artistically fulfilling work I was missing. But those arts management skills were necessary for success!
What was the most important thing you learned at your first job in the Arts?
My first job in the arts was at age 14, helping to wrangle at an elementary childrens’ summer arts program. I learned that the arts can bring people together and allow everyone to be their best selves. It’s not about the spotlight, it's the way a group gets to create something together and share the success of their creation. But the most important thing I learned working in the nonprofit arts sector in a rural community - the jobs can be full of misguided expectations of sacrifice and it's so important to draw personal boundaries. I think that’s an incredibly important thing for anyone to know if they are working in the arts or employing people in the arts.
How has the Arts Extension Service Core Certificate helped you contribute to the success of Arts Alive as the Executive Director?
I currently work at an arts service institution - Arts Alive. All of the courses I took in the program have been helpful. However, the one that tops the list was the strategic planning course. When I began this job in 2014, the organization’s budget was $40,000/year and the strategic plan was so vague! The organization had only existed for 5 years and was running into a bit of an identity crisis. Having clear strategic plans and knowing how to write, navigate, and celebrate successes of them has been the best tool to grow this organization sustainably. It was also a great way to establish leadership and collect community input within the greater area I was working with.
I will also say the course work on grants and fundraising gave me a lot of confidence in approaching grant writing. I have only received two rejection letters in the past 15 years, and have received hundreds of thousands in grant funding over those years.
How has COVID impacted your organization and what changes did you have to make? How did the Strategic Planning class help with this shift?
Covid inspired a shift to virtual and hybrid programs, offering resources via multiple platforms, an investment in certain programs over others, and a drive to incorporate embodied and artistic experiences into our technical services programming. The structure of the classes, the passion for spreadsheets, and the ordered thinking that was imparted throughout was incredibly helpful to developing project plans that would move us towards our goals.