Conversation with Eve Biddle, Founder & Co-Executive Director of The Wassaic Project
Fostering an Artistic Community & Non-Profit
May 30, 2018
1. What is your organization?
The Wassaic Project is a hybrid community development organization and an emerging artist incubator, featuring music, art, dance and film programming. We offer three programs: a series of festivals, an artist residency, and arts education for the community that are all intertwined with each other.
The festivals were the first thing we did, and it started as an annual event over one weekend where we a circle of friends and friends of friends. The first year we had 35 artists, 15 bands and about 500 attendees. Now we’ve welcomed over 35,000 visitors to Wassaic and have worked with over 1,500 creatives including film makers, dancers, musicians and artists.
For the art programming, we work collaboratively with Wassaic high school and middle school teachers to create an art curriculum that complements what the students are learning in other subjects in their classroom. We also host the Art Nest, a free drop-in art-making space in our site in Wassaic. There are themes each month where students can come in and just draw, or paint, or sculpt any time, no appointment, with your family. It’s an all-ages space, and part of that was just giving kids something to do. We also offer summer camps. There is also public programming for the community of artists, and local community, and whoever is coming through our doors. The education program makes our heart sing the loudest. We’re trying to teach collaborative work, creative thinking, problem solving, and leadership.
In the artist residency program, artists come to live and work in Wassaic for one to two months at a time, and most then participate in our exhibition program. Each year we also invite a series of Education Fellows to the artist residency program who work closely with our Education Director to develop educational programming. Local kids learn from them and see the work that they’re currently working on.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
It was started by four of us, Bowie, Elan, Jeff, and me. At the time, I was working on producing international events for a performance artist and working as a part-time scenic painter. Bowie and I love getting people together, and one seed of the idea was bringing together musicians, artists, music and art lovers to create a space where people across the artistic community could connect in a collaborative way devoid of competition. Bowie in particular was sensitive to the negative effects of competition in the artistic process, coming out of a graduate school experience where sabotage of fellow artists was not uncommon. So, we wanted to create a residency that could be a relationship builder for artists. I’m really proud of that.
The first thing we did was a summer festival. It was art and music over the course of one weekend. And then by the second year, we were layering in education, and by the third year, we had the residency artist program going. We started a partnership with our local public schools probably the year after that. We are 10 years old now.
3. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
There were a lot of skills that I did not have when we started. Some of which I didn’t even know we needed and some of which I knew were gaps. But I think that being very open about what I needed to learn was essential. I spent time actively seeking out mentoring in those areas and then I also tried to work quickly to admit mistakes and correct course.
One example is early on, we started working with some non-profit fundraisers who are established and they were incredibly generous about inviting their contacts up to Wassaic. I had a very embarrassing, but mostly edifying conversation, about a proposed contract. We had drawn up a contract that said that the fundraiser had to give us her contact list after the project was over. She said that’s totally unreasonable. So we asked how should we do this? She explained that these were her contacts and if they come, they can sign up for more information or to get involved. We realized that made a lot of sense and ultimately would only capture the most interesting people – and creative intentional repeat visitors in a meaningful way.
4. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
Our families were major assets. They were incredibly supportive, but it was also really important for me to do some work on defining what I needed help with. My husband did a great job taking care of our kids, but I also found that putting together a plan for work time and family time was really helpful.
5. Who did you speak to for support as you were working on the idea/launch?
We started out with four founding partners, and that collaboration was essential to getting Wassaic off the ground. Bowie, Jeff and I work full time on Wassaic, and Elan has moved on to an incredible film career – her last film premiered at Sundance 2018! My two partners, Bowie and Jeff, are married to each other, and they have two children. Over four years we alternated having babies. I’ve got two, they’ve got two. It’s amazing having partners who have empathy and experience in the exact same things I am going through. For instance, breastfeeding babies in executive meetings was no big deal.
In turn, this helped us set the culture, with our board and our staff, as a collaborative, open atmosphere and family-friendly. We’re really a decentralized office in that everybody sets their own schedule, everybody telecommutes part of the week, there is no tracking. That’s a culture that’s really important to our office.
6. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
I spend most of my time doing administrative work such as planning for events and managing the business like fundraising, and that was a surprise. It probably would not have been a surprise for someone who started a non-profit in their 30s and 40s. I was 25 when we put on the first festival.
7. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
You hear all the time that you’re just more efficient with your time once you have kids because you’ve got less of it, and that’s really true. I think that one of the biggest challenges is just being present wherever you are. If you are in your family life, be present in your family life. If you’re in your work life, be present in your work life. It’s impossible to have really hard boundaries because there is a lot of blending together, but having some time when you are totally focused on one or the other is absolutely essential. Because, otherwise, you’re spending your time with this kind of emotional tug of war that is not that pleasant.
At Wassaic Project we host a lot of weekend events, and my husband and I are based in New York City for the school year and upstate in the summer. For example, we have a big event on Saturday, and my whole family is coming up to Wassaic and it’s going to be really fun. My kids are going to come to my work, and it’s going to be a big mash-up of personal and work. I’m on the train right now going up to have meetings today on Friday without the kids and without my husband so that I can have a totally fun play time with them this weekend.
8. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
I hope to become more financially stable and a little bit smarter financially in budgeting for the current programs and working more closely with our staff so that each of them can manage their programmatic budgets independently. It’s really getting better at management, something I didn’t think much about when we started. I also want our education program to expand and impact the students who we are working with more deeply. Ideally, we are working with the same studios all the way from elementary school through college.
9. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Date of conversation: January 26, 2018
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