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Q and A with Suzanne Fetscher

by Mark Peres

December 7,2008

Suzanne Fetscher is president & CEO of McColl Center for Visual Art. Prior to assuming her role in April 1998, Suzanne served for five years as Executive Director of Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. A graduate of the University of Central Florida (B.F.A.) and University of Florida (M.F.A.), she spent several post-graduate years teaching design and drawing, serving as adjunct instructor at Rollins College and at University of Central Florida, and a full-time visiting instructor at Stetson University. Suzanne served three terms as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Alliance of Artists’ Communities, a national consortium of organizations and individuals established to improve the environment in which artists’ communities support artists in the creative process.

After 10 years of leading McColl Center for Visual Art, you took a sabbatical this past summer. Why?

I was closed to burned out after 10 years. After the enormity of our start-up, and some physical health issues, I needed to get some distance. I always intended to come back, but during the sabbatical I left it out there as to what might happen. I wanted to get healthy and strong again. I stuck around mostly, but I did take three trips with my husband: one to Philadelphia, where I took a course at Wharton entitled ‘Innovation: Driving Organic Growth.’ I was the only nonprofit executive among 28 participants. I enjoyed being on a university campus again; we took a road trip to Minnesota, where I grew up. We stayed at a lake house in the country side, and also visited affordable live-work spaces for artists in Minneapolis; and we took a 7-day Alaskan cruise. We visited Vancouver, an amazing city with walkable streets, retail and residential, and great museums.

Any clarifying insights?

My clarifying insight is that Charlotte is where I’m supposed to be – which is a notion that is often tested when one travels. I regained my enthusiasm for the Center’s mission – connecting artists to community, and creating an experience that is transformational for artists and for the public. The Center offers meaningful engagement that I want to be part of. We haven’t reached our full potential. Our next phase is about having an even broader impact – challenging ourselves and stretching.

Over the last 3 years, you launched The Innovation Institute at McColl Center for Visual Art. What is it?

The Institute is a professional and personal development curriculum for senior level executives focused on creativity and innovation. It is a challenging experience through which community leaders and professionals unlock and apply their own creative potential. The course takes place every other Friday over a 3-month period. We offer them in the Spring and Fall. We’ve had six classes so far. We recently received a significant grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help us expand, hire a permanent director, and become a model leadership development program.

Why did you launch it?

The McColl Center is an R&D center, a laboratory, a think tank for visual artists. When I started here in 1998, I saw the uptown office towers a few blocks away, but there was a great gulf – both physical and psychological – between us. I would hear corporations position themselves as innovative and creative in their business solutions, but I was suspicious. The creative process is profound. It involves intellectual rigor, challenging assumptions, honesty, constantly striving to be better, and courage. I wondered whether senior business executives were asking themselves the hard questions. So the idea behind the Innovation Institute was to offer experiential learning and dialogue to equally successful business peers, to add creative capacity to their lives that would benefit community. We also launched it to create a revenue stream consistent with our core values. I saw it as my own great personal risk to try it. I talked to a lot of people. I thought if this goes wrong, I might have to leave town!

What are you finding?

The Innovation Institute has been a great success. On the first day of the course, there is a level of anxiety. Senior level executives often feel inadequate about their own creativity, intimidated by successful artists; and the artists often have to work through their own sense of inadequacies being with accomplished business executives. We soon get to a place of understanding about where our creative voice comes from. We learn that it’s in our cellular structure. We are all innately creative. We explore it, see examples of it, see that there is no right or wrong in how and what we express, that our personal expression has value; the more personal the more valuable. We examine the right environment for creativity, and how everybody has the capacity to be an original thinker.

What are your thoughts about artistry and risk?

Artists learn how to take measured risk, managing time and limited supplies. Shaun Cassidy, one of our sculptors and public artists, talks about taking enough risk to get nervous and excited. There is this intricate dance between left and right brain activity that serious artists engage in, adopting professional practices that adopt intellectual honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness to go where the answer may lead.

How do you see the economic downturn affecting creativity in Charlotte?

We, as a community, may get more in tune with our unique voice. We’ve had such financial muscle to buy culture. We have gotten by with a good measure of the superficial and the pretty, because of the concern about our image. Now that we may not have the means to purchase culture created elsewhere, we may end up creating more of our own here. The element that is required for true creativity and collaboration is vulnerability. We have the opportunity to go deeper and have more meaning. It requires courage to see our vulnerability as a great source of strength.

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