A really good run: longtime Northampton Center for the Arts Director Penny Burke to step down

  • Northampton Center for the Arts Director Penny Burke walks through the flexible performance and event space at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street in July. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Penny Burke, the longtime director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, “works well with other people and gets things done,” as one supporter puts it. She’s shown here at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The flexible performance and event space under construction at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street. The Northampton Center for the Arts will have office space in the building when it fully opens in the fall. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Penny Burke, longtime director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, talks about her experience during an interview at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Penny Burke, longtime director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, is stepping down in September. But she’ll remain involved in other ways in the arts scene, including at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building, where she’s seen here. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Artist Linda Babcock paints the nearby landscape and buildings during “En Plein Air.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Painter Scott Prior works on a scene during “En Plein Air” at Northampton’s Pulaski Park in July. The outside painting exhibition is one of the events organized by the Northampton Center for the Arts. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

  • Susan Barocas works on her oil painting  during “En Plein Air.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Susan Barocas of Northampton uses a palate knife to mix oil paint during “En Plein Air” at Northampton’s Pulaski Park in July. The outside painting exhibition is one of the events organized by the Northampton Center for the Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2018 10:23:41 AM

Some have called her a community treasure — one who’s “hidden in plain sight.” Indeed, for years she has been largely behind the scenes, whether producing First Night Northampton or any number of arts events around the city, from dance performances to concerts to art exhibitions.

As the longtime executive director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, Penny Burke has been something of an artistic joiner, knitting together groups and members of the city’s arts scene in a way that’s not often visible to the public. But now she’s getting ready to call it a career — sort of.

Burke will officially step down from NCFA at the start of September, when she’ll turn the reins of the organization over to two new staff members who together will run the center. But she’s also going to be keeping her hand in the local arts scene as a consultant, a volunteer and a NCFA alumna.

“I definitely see myself staying involved in different aspects of the arts,” Burke said during a recent interview at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street, where she has been producing NCFA events since last fall.

“People ask me if I’m still going to be doing things [with NCFA], and I say, ‘Well, since I don’t have a one-way ticket to Brazil, chances are yes,’ ” she added with a laugh. “It’s hard to escape.”

Burke joined NCFA, seemingly temporarily, in mid -2004, when she was hired to produce First Night Northampton, the city’s annual New Year’s Eve musical and entertainment celebration, in this case for December 31, 2004 (she also served as First Night producer one other year, in 2000). A new director had also just started at NCFA the summer of 2004, Burke recalls, and the organization’s board of directors “didn’t want someone to have to do both jobs.”

But when the new NCFA director left in late December, Burke said she’d stay on as interim director for the next several months — and then her appointment morphed into a permanent one. “I’ve been here ever since,” she said.

 Supporters say they’re glad she did stay — and that, working with the NCFA  board and some other committed community members, she made the organization, which started in 1983, fiscally sound and a more active part of the city’s arts community.

“She is just so vibrant and dedicated, so smart and caring,” said Lisa Leizman, director of the dance company of the same name that has been the “in-house” dance group for years. “She is really supportive of artists and what they’re trying to do, whether it’s 13-year-olds who want to have a rock concert, or an international dance group … she has always found ways to make things happen.”

And Leizman, who once served as associate director at NCFA, says Burke found unique ways to improve the center’s fiscal standing, in part by helping artists become more efficient themselves and thus lower overall costs. “She’s always been able to look at the big picture and remind artists that someone’s got to pay the bills.”

Dorothy Nemetz, a longtime NCFA board member and a friend of Burke, notes that the center was heavily in debt when Burke took over as director. But over the years, she found creative ways to stage arts events as fundraisers and to expand the First Night program to cover all its promotional and organizational costs, and then raise money in addition to that. 

And Burke did that even though she always paid First Night artists “very well,” added Nemetz. “She really helped artists to make a living from their art … she has amazing financial sense, and she’s a real force of nature.”

A long journey

Part of what has led Burke to step down now from NCFA is a sense that she has had a good run. But she says it also has been something of a struggle over much of the last five years for NCFA not to have a regular home.

The center spent 30 years in its initial location in the Sullivan Square building, on the corner of Main and New South streets, with a ballroom/performance area and office space on the second floor. But the organization, begun as a public/private partnership between the city and the developers of the building, lost its home in 2013 when the city’s 30-year lease in the building expired; the space was turned into condominiums.

After efforts to find a new home for NCFA fell through, Burke rented office space on Pearl Street and staged events in other area venues, such as the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Later in 2013, the Northampton Community Arts Trust, the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving space for art in the city, bought vacant commercial property on Hawley Street with the goal of turning it into an arts center, including office space for NCFA and other groups.

Though two performance spaces, including a dance studio, opened in the building last fall, much of the interior remains under construction, though more rooms, including dedicated NCFA office space, are slated to open in September. For much of the last year, Burke says she has been doing her administrative work from home, even as NCFA produces regular events at 33 Hawley Street, including dance, art classes and writing workshops (the group also rents space out for occasional private functions like parties). 

 “It wasn’t like I ever set a date and said ‘I’m going to retire this year,’ ” Burke said. But construction at 33 Hawley has taken longer than she originally thought it would, pushing her to make the decision earlier this year. “I didn’t think it was going to be more than three years until we had a physical place to be.”

She has been helping with groundwork for her departure and working since last fall with Kelly Silliman, a dancer who serves as NCFA’s program director. And Burke has now begun showing new Managing Director Christian Herold, who started in mid-July, the financial and administrative side of NFCA’s work.

Burke didn’t bring a specific arts background to NCFA, but she did have a personal interest in the arts, and she had plenty of professional experience as a planner. For many years, she says, she worked as a travel writer and researcher, then as a travel agent, including running her own travel business in Northampton.

That experience, in turn, led her to involvement in some “unusual event planning,” as she puts it, such as organizing alumnae parades at Smith College (she’s a Smith alum, where she studied theater, with an emphasis on dramatic literature and criticism). 

At home, meanwhile, Burke made sure her children were exposed to the arts. She remembers taking her oldest daughter, Alexis Neubert, to a musical theater program at the center in 1984 when she was in elementary school. Her younger daughter, Siobhan Burke, was at one time a championship Irish dancer — she later performed in “Riverdance” — and Burke would rent time at the center to allow Siobhan to practice for upcoming competitions.

“Eventually, I also got involved in volunteering for First Night, so I really got to know the people at [NCFA] anecdotally,” Burke said.

Once on as director at NCFA, she established other regular arts events in the city such as the monthly Arts Night Out program and the chalk art and ice sculpture festivals. In recent years, she has turned management of some of these events over to other groups; the Northampton Arts Council now produces First Night, for instance.

Burke says she’ll maintain some kind of presence at NCFA; she and Nemetz helped organize the low-cost writing workshops, run by the Straw Dog Writers Guild, as one example, and it’s a project that Burke calls “very close to my heart.”

“Penny will still be with us in spirit, and probably more than that,” said Nemetz.

Leizman says Burke has always embodied the two qualities you’d most want in the head of an arts organization, or any organization, really: “She works well with people, and she gets things done.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.



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