Susan Wissler Describes The Mount's Strong Season
Reducing Debt and Quadruple Programming
By: Charles Giuliano - 09/02/2012
Edith Wharton at work.
Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox, Mass.
Susan Wissler has brought The Mount back from the brink.
Wissler during the last WordFest.
Wissler with WordFest speaker Garrison Keilor.
Charles Giuliano When we spoke a couple of years ago it was an emotional time for you as director of The Mount. It seems that you’ve made a lot of progress since then.
Susan Wissler We certainly have Charles. We’ve reduced our debt from over $9 million to under $4 million.
We’re having a very busy summer. The Vogue article was a huge affirmation of all that we’re doing. I don’t know if you’re had a chance to see it yet but it’s an 18 page spread in the September issue which was shot by Annie Leibovitz. The art director was Grace Cottington. As a result we are getting a nice bump in visitation and hits to our website as well.
Our Lecture Series has been extraordinarily robust. Every lecture is sold out. Our Jazz Café, as someone said last Saturday, “It is no longer the best kept secret.” We had over 300 people. We had to put tables, not only on the terrace, but on the lawn below.
Everything is really buzzing. For me a highlight was last weekend when someone came up to me and said “The house has never felt more alive.” That is exactly what we have been trying to achieve both in how we adjusted our pricing to make children 18 and under free. To taking down the ropes so people can wander through the house as freely as they wish. To having evening events to allow people to experience the house at times when typically a house museum might be closed. But it’s really the most special time.
Every day is another step forward. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges ahead. Of course there are. There always will be for so long as we don’t have an endowment. Our relationship to the public has improved enormously. Everyone is coming to realize how special a place it is.
I had a lovely conversation with a person from Shakespeare & Company who talked about how terrible and horrible the division was. (S&Co. started as a resident of the Mount. Several years ago it acquired its current campus in Lenox. By all accounts it was a painful separation.) “We hated you for it but now we understand it was the right thing for the Mount.” That meant volumes to me.
CG How is Tina (Packer founder of S&Co.)?
SW I don’t see Tina much. I hear she’s in California. But it wasn’t Tina who said it but it was a founding member.
CG It’s painful to look back. Not that long ago there was deep despair about the viability of The Mount. Can you take us back and walk us through the steps, moving forward from the darkest hour, to the light at the end of the tunnel?
SW Ok. Even driving to work today I had a flashback. Back to a packed Town Meeting when we laid out the facts as they were at that time. In terms of what the status of the Mount was. We were literally facing foreclosure. The darkest hour was March, 2008.
All the staff had been let go with the exception of me and the grounds crew. They were allowed to stay on because they were basically protecting the property which was being regarded at that point as little more than collateral for a loan.
It reminded me of the Poseidon Adventure (1972) the film with Ernest Borgnine and Shelly Winters. The ship has capsized, filling with water, and all the lights have gone off. It is completely silent. That is what The Mount felt like to me at that point.
CG What an image.
SW Just this great, dark, quiet, silence. A sinking ship.
CG What did that mean to you personally at that time. You’re a very talented woman, an attorney, there are a lot of possibilities, yet you took on The Mount. Surely at that time you had other personal options. That’s a time in our lives when we go out to the woodshed to rediscover ourselves. I know you are a runner.
SW The analogies that work for me in terms of strategy include, long distance running, three set tennis matches. Even mucking out my barn which is one shovel after another. Those were all very useful mind sets to draw upon. It was a journey. The tortoise vs. the hare story. One step after another and you just keep moving forward and never give up. My grounds crew and staff, which at that point were largely volunteers, did not stop coming in because they cared so much. There was never a point where giving up was an option. Absolutely never. It was a question of holding firm and moving forward.
CG I am trying to get a snapshot of The Mount as a burden on your shoulder like the Rock of Gibraltar. You are the only person sustaining a property and artistic legacy on the brink of extinction.
SW I had a Board of Trustees which was also resilient. I have to say that I never felt alone. It took a small core group. The other thing that helped was the decision to go public with our situation. It was risky. It goes against all fundraising strategies. People don’t like losers. They like winners. So you have to solve your problems privately. But we had no choice. When the news hit CNN and NPR and all the papers across the country that The Mount was in dire straits the phone started ringing and the checks poured in from all over the country. In our darkest hour that was the affirmation that it was the right decision to stay the course and keep moving forward.
CG That was 2008 and 2009. How much have you raised since then?
SW We’ve been averaging between $1.5 and $4 million a year. Some of that is debt forgiven. The positive financial trajectory is extraordinary.
CG Give us a sense of the Mount’s current stability.
SW We are still precarious. We don’t have an endowment so we remain dependent on the generosity of our donors. Economic times are difficult. Financially we are out raising money for our immediate operating needs. Which is not to say I’m in despair. Not at all. With the exception of one or two it is a situation which all of the cultural institutions in the Berkshires are facing. The need to be always out there raising money never ends. It’s relentless.
CG A year ago you visited the Wharton home in France with Jonas and Betsy Dovydenas. (At one time they owned the property that now houses Shakespeare & Company. Formerly Jonas was a trustee of The Mount before the split with S& Co.) What came out of that?
SW Nothing has come out of it yet. The property is owned by the town of Hyères ( a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southeastern France). It is being used for government offices but they would like to turn it into a cultural center. There is a beautiful villa right next to it which has been turned into a museum. It would be great if the two could be linked. Preliminary discussions went very well but it is a long term dream. They don’t have the resources, nor do we, to move forward in any meaningful way. It’s in use in a magnificent setting and it would be amazing if we could do something.
CG The straw that broke the camel’s back was the acquisition of the Wharton Library. In hindsight was that a good or bad decision?
SW Whether or not the books were purchased The Mount would have hit the financial wall. Yes it was risky but there is no dispute that the rightful place for the books is here. The acquisition of the books raised the visibility of The Mount higher. When we fell it was from a higher spot. In an ironic way it helped. The world took notice. Laura Bush came because of the books and she helped to get us emergency funding to get us out of our immediate predicament. There was more at stake. Not one but two treasures. The Mount and Wharton’s Library. We could talk forever about whether it was the right or wrong decision under the circumstances but in the end The Library has served us well.
CG What was the cost and how has it been paid off?
SW It was 1.5 million pounds. A private individual loaned us $2.5 million. I have been asked not to disclose the name of the lender. We are paying off the lender just like the bank a little bit every month. For Berkshire Bank, on all of our debt, we are paying three and a quarter percent. It’s a good rate and fixed. We make monthly principle payments. We owe the bank about $ 3 million and the private lender $400,000. But I would like to check the numbers on that. Our total debt is down from $9.1 million to $3.7 million. The progress has been steady and in some ways remarkable. Lila Berle is our current chair. She was the founding chairperson of The Mount and she has returned as chairperson. She just made a gift of $300,000 which allowed us to make the final payment to the bookseller. When we bought the books we did not pay the full purchase price. We made an initial payment of 1 million pounds and we have been paying off a half million ever since. I owed him about $425,000. We negotiated and paid him $300,000 in settlement. So that is now off our books.
CG Of what scholarly value are the books? When we visited with you some of the books shown to us had her annotations. Are they a resource for scholars or just a memento of Wharton?
SW It would be good for you to ask that question to a scholar. Wharton scholar Irene Goldman-Price gave a lecture here about the Bahlmann letters yesterday. She said the library was invaluable to her research. I know she would be happy to speak with you about the importance of the library to Wharton scholarship. If you couple the library with correspondence it allows you to cross check and see what Wharton was reading at a certain point in time. Or what was influencing her at a certain period in her writing. They are a resource and a way of looking at and understanding a remarkable genius.
CG The Wharton literary holdings are at Yale.
SW Yale has the bulk. The Lilly Library (Indiana University) has some and then there is a library in Texas. Yale’s Beinecke Library has the bulk.
CG How do you link with these archives?
SW We have a great relationship with Beinecke. A lot of their material has informed our exhibits. We currently have three exhibits running simultaneously. We make good use of their photographic archive. We would love to spend more time at Lilly doing research. We just don’t have the time or money. They are enormously important and a lot of material is on line.
CG Is there thought about direct links with the archives? What is the potential for setting up The Mount as a research center?
SW The thinking is we’re working on The Stable. The restoration is the main project. We have raised $750,000 which has gone into the roof, foundation and some major structural repairs. Once that building has been restored and rehabilitated our offices will move to a portion of it. There is wonderful conference space in addition to our lecture and performance space. The Gate House (current office building) would become some kind of writer or scholar in residence program. That’s our long term thinking. The key is getting The Stable up and running. Our hope is to be running year round programming out of The Stable.
CG Can you describe the programming?
SW Right now we have a wonderful biography lecture series. Our WordFest literary festival is coming back in September. You can go on line and look at the schedule. Last year we ran a program a month. But there is just so much potential using Wharton’s own passions and achievements as inspiration. We can do a lot more with literature and education outreach. There are also her passions for architecture and landscape design. The literary aspect is probably where our emphasis will remain.
CG Ambitious programming brings in more visitors and raises overall visibility but it is costly. Given precarious finances it entails risk taking. Can you discuss that balance?
SW In the past three years we have quadrupled our programming. We have done that with partnerships which is the key to moving forward. For example we have indoor and outdoor theatre running. We have partnerships with two different theatre groups. They are in the business of producing theatre. It’s a way of reducing the down side. It’s not costing us money. We charge a modest site fee and then this wonderful theatre is performed here.
Last year the apprentices of Berkshire Theatre Festival produced Snow White. This year they produced a wonderful production of Pinnochio on our outdoor stage which I call our Theatre in the Dell. Then we have the Wharton Salon which is Catherine Taylor Williams who has a crew of mostly Shakespeare & Company veterans including Tod Randolph and a number of others. They have been with us for four years. They are producing Wharton’s one act plays which were written by Dennis Krausnick. He has kindly allowed Catherine and her group to perform them.
CG What has been the response to that theatre programming?
SW For the Wharton Salon it was a one woman show with Tod Randolph and I believe that almost every performance was sold out. It was the second season for the outdoor theater and I would say we had between 100 and 200 people for every performance.
CG I understand that Randolph performed under physical adversity.
SW That’s correct. She fell and was badly hurt but fortunately not as badly as it could have been.
It’s been great to talk with you. Precarious may not be the right word but financial challenges will always be there. It’s part of the game and you just have to go with it.