Writers Conference Hosted by The Mount

Conjuring the Spirit of Edith Wharton

By: - Jul 31, 2010

When Susan Wissler, an attorney who specialized in mergers and acquisitions, took over a couple of years ago as the director of Edith Wharton’s historic home and estate, The Mount, it was staving off extinction.

On Wissler's watch the Lenox based non profit has slowly recovered. In these difficult times for all arts organizations there are significant challenges. But as she told us during an extensive meeting several months ago evoking the name and spirit of the remarkable author, Edith Wharton, has proved to be magical.

Unlike most other Berkshire based arts organizations, The Mount, because of the far reaching reputation and interest in Wharton’s work, has a national and even global presence. This entails fundraising events and strategies in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and beyond.

In particular, the legacy of Wharton resonates with literary women. She was remarkable for more than holding her own in what was largely a male milieu. She was among the best selling and most successful authors of her generation. Her many books continue to be widely read.

More than an historic home, with well tended grounds and spectacular gardens, The Mount is a shrine and mecca. But one that requires great care, sensitivity, and strategic planning.

The Mount is a part of a rich, diverse and complex mix of  regional arts organizations. There is a critical mass of culture that draws visitors to the Berkshires. Particularly during the summer season it is among the nation's foremost arts destinations. In addition to seasonal tourism many in the arts have settled here to become a part of a vital creative community. Those with careers in the arts find New York, Boston, Hartford, New Haven. Providence and other business and academic centers within easy reach.

The clustering of so many world class arts and educational organizations in the region also equates to competition. If you combine all the seats and admissions for sale on any given weekend consumers have a wide range of options. There are only so many individuals to target.

In the past few years, particularly during the off season, the arts organizations have been networking, comparing schedules, and trying to work together particularly in programming, promotion and marketing. The challenge has been to identify similarities as well as to define differences. The incentive is to clarify the specific appeal of a theatre company, museum, historic home, music or dance organization.

While there is common cause it is hardly a level playing field in terms of resources. At the high end Tanglewood  stands alone. We are all invested in and dependent upon its success. If Tanglewood has a great season that lures large numbers of visitors to Lenox providing opportunities for other arts organizations. When families come for a weekend or extended vacation they can’t be at Tanglewood every night.

So Wissler has been thinking long and hard about how best to program and market The Mount. In addition to visiting the shrine of Wharton, which one might do once or twice, how to bring audiences back to The Mount season after season?

There is also the issue of development. If you create programming just where do you present it? There have been music and theatre performances in the mansion but this is limited. The rooms are not that large and there are issues of not damaging antique furnishings and valuable artifacts. The obvious venue is the Stables. In the short term they are suitable to launch programming but must be developed as an adequate facility. That takes time and money.

But there is an imperative not to wait. The programming concepts must be launched immediately to provide a template and incentive that attracts support and development. While still not out of the financial ditch this is a delicate but vital balancing act.

From July 23 to 25 Wissler provided a glimpse into the future by launching the first annual Berkshire WordFest at the Mount. The weekend onference of writers proved to be absolutely unique. It is the logical no brainer of how to build on Wharton’s legacy as well as identify and reach out to a new audience in the Berkshires.

It was a bold and gutsy move. But not without risk During the event we interacted with Wissler and Audrey Manring who was charged with organizing the conference. They were too flat out for more than brief exchanges.

Looking about it seemed that the event was a success. Some of the panels were well attended while the breakfast meetings and interviews with authors in a tent set up in the Glen, or poetry readings on the porch, were sketchy. We counted cars in the parking lot and calculated some 500 to 700 individuals attended. In a note from Manring she confirmed our estimates but stated that it would be some time before they have final figures. Audrey did a terrific job but is leaving to pursue graduate study.

We tried to pin Susan down for a comment and assessment. She tends to lawyer up when pressed. You are left reading the tea leaves of facial expressions and body language. After some prodding she stated that there were a lot of start up expenses in terms of creating a template for the conference. That will make it easier and more efficient next year. You also learn what works. Perhaps the breakfast meetings will be scrapped. The morning panels which started at 10:30 and were well attended might start earlier. And more activity might be shifted to tea time. Or until 6 PM when the cocktail party and fundraising dinners are scheduled. There is fine tuning to be considered.

“The WordFest will become a signature annual event for The Mount” Wissler said.

It was easy to understand why. Repeatedly speakers and panelists spoke of being honored to participate in a Wharton inspired event. It made it very special and reached beyond just an academic gathering of writers and journalists. The panels had themes that related to aspects of Wharton’s life and work. But the participants mostly veered off to convey their own experiences. Repeatedly in questions from the audience they were asked to relate their comments to Wharton. Only a few of the presenters were experts on her life and work. It became clear that many in the audience came with the hope of learning more about her legacy.

One of the most striking aspects of WordFest was the casual interaction between presenters and the audience. There was a remarkable generosity as speakers attended each other’s presentations and met one on one with individuals who had specific questions. There seemed to be a lot of networking.

People have asked me what I thought of the conference and insights on individual panels and speakers. I prefer to report that it was a blur with a great rush and intake of information. The sense was one of total immersion. I am sure that is felt by all of those who attended in depth. All of those agendas and ideas are settling in and swirling about.

They are thoughts and ideas to sustain us through the long Berkshire winter. When we curl up with those many books that we were introduced to. Right now who has time to read. But a dialogue has been created that will ripple through the creative community. And make us eager for another WordFest next summer as guests of Edith Wharton.