She and the nonprofit severed ties in January for reasons that haven't been publicly discussed, and a rising chorus of voices is asking for answers from HandMade's board.
"I must register my dismay, confusion and anger at the firing of Geraldine Plato as director of Handmade," wrote Rob Pulleyn in a letter to the HandMade board members last week. Pulleyn is the current chair of the Asheville Art Museum and sits on the board of ArtsNC, the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design and Penland School of Crafts. "I have never seen such an irresponsible and capricious board decision as the one you recently made. ... I don't know the internal discussions, the leadership dynamics of the board, or the reason for making such a precipitous and cruel firing, I again only know the results. Your decision has been devastating to the entire WNC crafts community."
The Asheville Citizen-Times originally reported on Plato's departure. After that, both HandMade staff and others offered public concerns about the decision, expressing shock and dismay.
"Organizations and executive employees part ways all the time and for a wide variety of reasons. I have no issue with the fact that HIA and Geraldine Plato came to a parting of the ways. While I personally think Geraldine was very good at this job and had the trust and respect of the community at large, it is the way in which the board of HIA chose to handle this situation that has made me so frustrated and angry," wrote former American Craft Council executive director Andrew Glasgow in a separate letter to board members last week.
While those familiar with nonprofit management say it's not unusual for a board and an executive director to part ways, Glasgow says that with an organization this important to the craft economy, there ought to be more information given about the decision.
HandMade was founded through collaborative community efforts in the early 1990s, with a mission to promote craft and culture for the WNC economy. Former executive director Becky Anderson was almost synonymous with the group. After her 14-year tenure, an extensive search was conducted that led to Plato's hiring in early 2008.
Glasgow says he and many others felt Plato (former assistant director at Penland and longtime WNC resident) brought a new level of energy, enthusiasm and capability to the nonprofit.
"I can't believe nondisclosure includes what everyone was unhappy about. For the community and the artists and the constituents to be so pleased with [Plato's] leadership, where was the disconnect?" Glasgow said in discussions with Xpress. "Why was the chasm so big and so unknown? If the board was unhappy, why be secretive about it, and then all of a sudden, she's not there anymore?"
Xpress contacted interim executive director (and former board member) Elizabeth Russell last week after e-mails from Pullen and Glasgow were sent to board members. After several requests for information about Plato's departure and the concerns stated, board chair Bill Lehnert e-mailed a statement this afternoon. Here it is, in its entirety:
"Thank you for the opportunity to provide a response on behalf of HandMade in America (HIA). I am disappointed that these letters were written without deliberate discussions with the HIA Board first.
The mission of HandMade in America (HIA) is to grow the handmade economies by providing the tools, markets, and partnerships while honoring craft, cultural heritage, and spirit of community. We envision a thriving region that leverages the distinctive cultural assets of its people and its communities. This core vision and mission basically has not changed since its inception when many of our constituents participated in its formation.
After considerable effort in 2009 by many stakeholders, the guiding principles of HIA were reaffirmed and defined in greater detail relative to tomorrow’s needs. The result was a comprehensive strategic plan for the next five years approved by the Board on November 19, 2009. Over this timeframe, HIA will refine and integrate its programs and solidify the ways it delivers and funds them in the western North Carolina, while working with partners to make HIA programs available in other regions. Delivering integrated services in local communities, financial sustainability, strengthening board, staff, and infrastructure, and new program development are a few of the goals to achieve our new strategic direction. We are actively pursuing this next chapter in our organization’s evolution of service to the greater crafts community and to do so, are moving forward in seeking a new executive director. We acknowledge the difficult nature of any transition in employment and strive to treat everyone with respect and dignity in this process. We value the service of Ms. Plato and have sought to work with her to move forward separately in a manner best for both parties and certainly wish her well.
That said, it is and will continue to be the policy of HIA not to comment regarding personnel matters for the protection and privacy of employees and HIA. As people in leadership positions in other organizations, I am confident each of you is aware that personnel matters of any kind are best addressed in executive session. It is not secrecy nor silence but adherence to and respect for the rules of order that govern and protect any organization and its people.
But perception is reality and your perception of actions of the Board is one of secrecy, unprofessionalism, and insensitivity. I can assure you without qualification that this was not the case in any circumstance. Every effort was made to address these very concerns before, during and after the transition and all members of the Board were very sensitive to these issues during all phases of the process.
In closing, all stakeholders have a vested interest in the continued success of HIA, its people and its programs. Plato and HIA have reached agreement and are moving forward. The Board and staff of HIA are committed to its vision and mission and hope you will continue your support and join us as we implement our strategic plan."
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