Excerpt from Berkshire Trade and Commerce By John Townes
After two decades as a key member of the management staff at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Jennifer Trainer Thompson has joined Hancock Shaker Village as its president and CEO. Thompson succeeds Linda Steigleder, who announced her plans to resign last March after serving for five years as the Pittsfield museum’s CEO for five years. Following a search and selection process by the museum’s board, Thompson’s appointment was announced in September. Steigleder remained at the helm until the end of the year, and Thompson assumed her new role at Hancock Shaker Village at the beginning of January. Thompson, who lives in Williamstown, has been a prime mover at MASS MoCA since the late 1980s, when that project was in the early planning stages that led to its opening in 1999. Her most recent position was as senior vice president of external relations and partnerships. (She is married to Joseph Thompson, the founding director of MASS MoCA.) While her professional focus has been on MASS MoCA for many years, Thompson said the opportunity to lead Hancock Shaker Village is the fulfi llment of a longtime dream. “I’ve always loved Hancock Shaker Village,” Thompson said in a late January interview. “I’m very interested in history, and one of the fi rst things I did when I moved to Berkshire County in 1986 was to visit Hancock Shaker Village. I’d long thought that if I weren’t at MASS MoCA, that was the other place I’d really want to work for. “ Thompson said a combination of circumstances eventually made that possible. “I was very committed to MASS MoCA, and it was such a challenge to get it up and running that I couldn’t leave,” she said. “But MASS MoCA is now a thriving, wellaRTs & culture established institution, and it’s completed its development goals for the site. I decided that I was ready to move on to something new. That coincided with the opening of this job at Hancock Shaker Village. I applied and was accepted. So, it was the right confl uence of events.” Hancock Shaker Village is a 750-acre property off Route 20 at the Pittsfi eld-Hancock line. The village was founded by the Shakers, a religious sect that began in England and migrated to America in the 1770s. They founded an original village on nearby Mount Lebanon in New York. They established Hancock Shaker Village in 1789, and subsequently expanded to settlements in other regions. The Shakers believed that the end of the world was imminent, and they practiced celibacy to avoid births. However, despite that belief, the Shakers were very practical, and were known for their earthly inventiveness and industriousness. The community at Hancock Shaker Village participated actively in the commercial and agricultural life of Pittsfi eld and the surrounding region. The village in Hancock continued to operate into the 20th century. In 1960, the property was sold to a nonprofi t organization headed by Amy Bess Miller, who established it as a museum, and launched an ongoing restoration and preservation project there. In addition to its central cluster of preserved buildings, including the iconic Round Stone Barn, the museum operates a working farm there. It offers tours, educational programs and other activities. Multifaceted interests Thompson is also an author who has written more than 20 books, and many articles about science, travel, art, and lifestyles for national publications. She is especially known as a food writer and cookbook author. She gained visibility in the culinary world for promoting spicy foods, which caused the Associated Press to describe her as the “Queen of Hot.” Her writing also led to her career in museum administration. She became involved with MASS MoCA in 1988 after writing an article for the new york Times about the early stages of the project, which envisioned transforming a vacant manufacturing complex into a major contemporary art museum as a community development project. She was so impressed by the project that she decided to join the initiative. She worked as development and public relations director, and she subsequently oversaw membership, special events and the development of partnerships. The transition from working at an art museum focused on contemporary, cutting-edge culture in an urban industrial setting to the bucolic environment of a historic rural farming village may seem to be a sharp contrast. Thompson, however, does not see it that way. “One thing that Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA have in common is that both museums are factories for new ideas,” she said. She explained that the Shakers were ahead of their time. “Hancock Shaker Village has the fabric of a historic village that is very authentic and unique,” she said. “But it’s not just about looking back. The Shakers were progressive in many ways. They were very advanced in areas such as gender equality and environmental stewardship. They also were very innovative and embraced new technologies. So the Shakers are very relevant to the contemporary conversation. An important part of our mission is to illuminate that.” Regarding her overall plans and goals in her new position, Thompson said her priorities are to enhance and build on the existing offerings of the museum in an incremental way. She said the organization is in a positive fi nancial position, after an earlier period of diffi culties that occurred when memberships and income declined after the economic downturn of 2008. She credited Steigleder with putting the organization on a more stable fi nancial footing during her tenure. “I’m very impressed with what Linda accomplished,” said Thompson. “I’m fortunate to be inheriting an institution that operates in the black.” Thompson emphasized that the organization has to continue to improve its fi nancial picture, but it is not under the same pressures that it was previously. “The board and I need to raise money as a priority,” she said. “But, overall, the institution is fi nancially sound.” Thompson noted that the museum has also completed a series of maintenance projects to the buildings and grounds, and important improvements were made to increase the physical accessibility of the property. “Linda did a did a terrifi c job with restoration and maintenance of the physical facilities,” she said. “There will be additional work, because, with a village as old as this, there are always projects that need to be done. But we’re not planning on undertaking any major changes in the near future.” Boosting visitation The major challenge and priority, Thompson said, is to update and expand on the museum’s programming and bolster attendance. “Visitation has not been increasing,” she said. “With the growth of the cultural options in the Berkshires, there is more competition for visitors. I see my primary mandate as enlivening the environment at the village to give people more reasons to come here.” That includes encouraging people to visit the museum to enjoy its traditional attractions and the unique environment. “There are aspects of the village that have an inherent appeal, such as visiting the farm in spring to view the baby animals,” she said. In addition to increasing attendance among tourists, Thompson said this overall goal includes strengthening the museum’s connections to Berkshire residents by broadening its programming. “We want to build on our involvement with the local community and increase the diversity of our activities, to become a central part of the civic life of the region,” she said. “We plan to offer programs like workshops, talks and other activities to the public. Music is also a great draw, and we’re looking at having musical performances here.” This also includes turning certain elements of the museum into attractions of their own. One initiative in that direction is a new contract with Main Street Hospitality Group (MSHG), the Stockbridge-based company that operates the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Hotel on North in Pittsfi eld, Williams Inn in Williamstown, and The Porches Inn in North Adams. Under the agreement, MSHG will operate the cafe at Hancock Shaker Village. It will be a farm-to-table restaurant that will use food grown by the village’s farming operation, and offer meals that incorporate elements of traditional Shaker recipes. The newly renamed Seeds Market Cafe will be overseen by Brian Alberg, the company’s executive chef and vice president of culinary development, and a leader in the regional farm-to-table movement. Beginning April 15 it will be open during all museum hours, as well as for dinner on evenings when events and programs are scheduled at the village. “You can’t get much more local than having the gardens where the food is grown right outside the window,” said Thompson. “In addition to serving visitors to the village, it is intended to be a place where people from the community people will come to dine and relax.” The role of the museum’s shop is being expanded in a similar way as a destination store for the public. “The Shakers cared about design and quality, and they believed in the theory that form follows function,” Thompson said. “We’re working with a new store manager to make that principle a jumping-off point to offer a wide selection of quality well designed items, to make the shop more robust and attract customers on its own.” Trainer said other ideas are being explored that will be added on a phased-in basis. “Right now we’re all focused on preparing for the upcoming season that starts in April,” she said. Thompson’s enthusiasm for her new workplace is expressed in her basic summary of her goals for the museum. “Ultimately, I want more people to come and experience how special this place really is,” she said.