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A hard act to follow

As founder’s retirement looms, Hubbard Hall seeks a new leader



Contributing writer

Hubbard Hall, the 19th century opera house that was reborn more than 30 years ago as a performing arts center for southern Washington County, is facing some big changes.

Benjie White, the executive director of Hubbard Hall Projects Inc., the nonprofit that runs the hall, has announced that he’ll step down in April 2014, when he turns 70. White was one of the arts center’s founders in 1977 and is the only executive director the organization has ever known.

“I was the only one crazy enough to assume the role,” White recalled.

Hubbard Hall Projects was created around its namesake building, which was built by Martin Hubbard in 1878. Once a center of the community (and one of two opera houses in the small village of Cambridge), the building had been in a slow decline since the 1920s.

When the Bell family put it on the market in 1977, White and other local supporters of the arts organized, raised money, and bought the hall for $21,700.

Hubbard Hall’s campus now includes both the original hall and three buildings in the 19th century railroad freight yard behind. The hall’s programming, which started with a folk music series in the late 1970s, has grown to include chamber music, opera, theater, dance, choral music, visual arts, children’s programs, and occasional events such as garden forums, yoga workshops, meet-the-author events and other presentations on topics of local interest.

White emphasizes that Hubbard Hall doesn’t create programs.

“There are no programs that I or other board members have started,” he said. “We pull together the resources, find people with the right passion, and throw resources behind them. We have a venue supporting artists.”

White grew up in Cambridge. His father, the late Lyman White, was president of the Jerome B. Rice Seed Co., down the street from Hubbard Hall. The company, a major local employer that in the late 19th century was the second largest seed producer in the United States, closed in 1976; its buildings now are Varak Park.

‘A white elephant’
Benjie White’s first glimpse inside Hubbard Hall came in the late 1940s. By then, the performance space, with its raked stage, balcony, chestnut paneling and stenciled ceiling, had become an attic for John Henry’s dry goods store, which occupied the ground floor.

“I was 5 years old when my dad asked John Henry for the key to the hall so he could show me around,” White recalled. “The building was a white elephant.”

Hubbard Hall was built when “top performers and social interest speakers expected to get on the train and go town to town,” White said. Even very small towns had public performing spaces.

Greenwich had three opera houses, Salem had two, and the hamlets of Shushan and Eagleville had one each, he said. As automobiles became widely available in the 1920s and ‘30s, allowing audiences to travel, touring acts dropped the small rural venues and concentrated on city theaters where they could reach larger crowds and make more money per show.

Hubbard Hall continued to be used sporadically for community events such as school graduations and plays, craft shows, and local musicians’ concerts, White said.

But a rumor that the building was structurally unsound didn’t help its fortunes.

White was teaching theater at Wesleyan University and working with a chamber music group in the Cambridge area when he heard the building was up for sale. After touring the building, he realized that “it was beyond my means to make it workable.”

He took a job at Bennington College for a year while he organized a nonprofit group to buy it. Hubbard Hall Projects Inc. closed on the sale in January 1978.

Building a reputation
The first performance presented by Hubbard Hall Projects was Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath, whom White knew from Wesleyan.

“Other artists came when they heard Jean had been here,” White said. “She started a string of others who were considered top performers.”

Redpath’s concert actually was held in the auditorium at Cambridge Central School, because the hall wasn’t usable yet. The building didn’t meet state fire codes, had roof and foundation problems, and the heating system could only warm the shops downstairs.

White and a group of volunteers dug out the basement to create legal headroom and turned it into the Under the Bell Tower Café, a space for winter folk music concerts and films. Summer concerts were held upstairs, where open doors and windows let in fresh and possibly cooler air.

“I worked for the first four years with no pay,” White said. “I made my living as a builder. Then I went to quarter time, half time, and eventually full time.”

Because White had the skills to address the building’s structural needs, he was paid out of both the operating and building funds.

“I took reservations while I was working on scaffolding,” he recalled.

Over time, the new management at Hubbard Hall added fire escapes to the second floor, installed a heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system, stabilized the hall’s collapsing ceiling, built offices on the rear, and installed an elevator to meet Americans with Disabilities Acts requirements.

At the same time, the organization was adding programs.

By 2000, “we were bursting at the seams,” White said. A strategic plan written in 2002 identified the need for more space as Hubbard Hall’s most pressing problem. But lack of land and wastewater disposal facilities were major obstacles.

Hubbard Hall partnered with private supporters and the village government to buy the former railroad freight yard behind the hall, install a septic system that would serve several adjacent buildings, and renovate three former warehouses along the railroad tracks. Those buildings now house most of Hubbard Hall Projects’ offices, a meeting room, visual arts studio, a dance studio, and a “black box theater” that doubles as rehearsal space.

“Cambridge, New York, is an unlikely place for something like this,” White said. “The character of the place has allowed us to flourish.”

Normally, “it takes a large population to have the percentage that will be supportive of something like Hubbard Hall,” he added.

To survive and grow, the hall needs to draw from a wider region, and it does.

“We make sure that what we produce is worth driving an hour for,” White said. “Some people feel that’s exclusivity, but we can’t continue on local support alone.”

Separating founder, director roles
Replacing the executive director of any organization is a challenge, but the challenge is compounded when that director is the founder, said Doug Sauer, chief executive officer of the New York Council of Non-Profits.

Hubbard Hall, he said, has taken on White’s vision.

“Usually founders create their own boards of directors and systems,” Sauer said. “Often the board isn’t as independent as it could be. The board will have to define the executive director’s position apart from the founder, without his personality. Boards make a mistake if they try to replace that person with someone like him.”

Sauer said Hubbard Hall’s board will need to answer three questions: What kind of organization do we want to be? What do we need to do to sustain ourselves? What kind of person do we need to do that?

The task may be complicated for both personal and financial reasons. White wants to stay on part time until 2019.

“I dread the thought of not having this job to come to every day,” he said. “I would love to continue as technical director.”

In his letter announcing his intention to retire, White suggested several other possibilities, from theater company producer to mascot.

But Sauer said White’s continued involvement could pose challenges for a new director.

“If the old executive director stays on, the boundaries must be clear and well-respected,” Sauer said. “It’s difficult to do that. The board needs to give the new director room to operate and open new directions.”

White wasn’t sanguine about the prospects for finding a new executive director.

“The big challenge of the transition is that it will take another crazy,” he said.

Hubbard Hall has struggled financially for years. All of its employees, including White, are working for about half the pay usual in the nonprofit world, he said. Because of its small size and rural location, “it isn’t likely we can attract someone who sees this as a step in professional advancement.”

He said he believes the organization’s best bet may be someone who moves to the area because of a spouse’s job, or who sees an opportunity to build his or her own vision.

Andrew Pate, chairman of Hubbard Hall Projects’ board of directors, sees another question: “how to put Hubbard Hall on a firm foundation with the necessary staff, doing what is most effective and productive, and assure members and supporters that Hubbard Hall will continue to provide high quality performances and classes.”

Hubbard Hall’s 2012-13 budget forecasts revenues of $350,000, said Judy Pate, the organization’s treasurer.

Program expenses, at 36 percent of the budget, “are barely covered by program fees, ticket sales, and class fees,” she said. Thirty-seven percent of the budget comes from fund raising, and the rest from memberships, rents, and reimbursement for services. Income over the last 10 years has stayed mostly flat, while expenses have risen.

“We would need another $50,000 a year to pay for adequate staff and to sustain the organization and maintain the buildings,” Judy Pate said.

Risks, potential rewards
Sharon Kruger, a past board president who has served in many volunteer capacities over the years, said she sees White’s retirement as an opportunity to reinvigorate the organization.

“Founder’s syndrome” sets in when an organization’s needs grow beyond the skills of its founding director, Kruger said.

“I see Hubbard Hall becoming a much more vibrant part of the community” after White leaves, she said. “The strong programs will stay. The new director will bring in new directions.”

Kruger is also on the board of Music from Salem, a chamber music organization that does summer performances at the hall. She disputes White’s contention that the area is poor.

“There is money in the area,” Kruger said.

Many well-to-do people have second homes tucked away in Washington County’s hills and hollows, and a Music from Salem supporter recently hosted a successful fund-raising event in New York City, she said.

Sarah Ashton, board president of the Cambridge Valley Community Development and Preservation Partnership Inc., which includes Hubbard Hall Projects, said the arts center’s success is crucial to Cambridge.

“Hubbard Hall is a key part of promoting the economic vibrancy of the village,” she said.

Communities with arts organizations attract businesses that need employees who can think creatively, she said.

“Benjie is an incubator of ideas,” Ashton said. “I hope the new director will have a particular passion too.”

Hubbard Hall’s board now has the systems in place to find a new director, Ashton said.

“This transition would have been more difficult 15 years ago,” she said.

But White hasn’t groomed an obvious successor.

Pate, the board president, said that when an executive director steps down, “typically someone from the board would be drafted” to recruit a new director and perhaps fill in on an interim basis.

“That hasn’t been formalized,” Pate said. “Several people on the board have experience doing job descriptions and executive searches. We won’t need a consultant to do that.”

Studio 2, a marketing consultant in Lenox, Mass., recently completed a marketing plan for Hubbard Hall, Pate said.

“It provides a very valuable assessment of our current practices and exciting opportunities to rebrand and market our organization,” Pate said. “It should excite the staff and reinvigorate the organization.”

Sauer said the board must decide on a search process for a new executive director and how the person will be chosen.

“There will be significant change,” he said. “There can be a lot of anxiety about that.”

However, he added, “the board will learn during the search process as they talk to candidates and hear their ideas. It’s a new chapter in the organization’s life.”


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