Hancock Shaker Village names Jennifer Trainer Thompson as new leader
PITTSFIELD — Jennifer Trainer Thompson is ready to make living history.
The Williamstown resident, longtime cultural administrator and journalist has been named president and CEO of Hancock Shaker Village. The appointment was announced on Wednesday afternoon during a press conference by the board of trustees.
She will succeed the current leader for the living history museum and farm, Linda M. Steigleder, who announced in March that she would be stepping down at the end of the year after five years at the helm.
Steigleder will officially pass the baton to Thompson in December, giving the new leader adequate time to conclude her current tenure as senior vice president of partnerships and external affairs at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
"We are so pleased to have Jennifer join Hancock Shaker Village at this pivotal moment in its history. She has a keen understanding of the region and what is required to make a living history museum a robust, exciting place," said Dan Cain, chairman of the Hancock Shaker Village board of trustees. "She is a modern day renaissance woman who possesses the intelligence, skills, style and a passion for art and community that will propel Hancock Shaker Village into the next decade."
A Southeastern Massachusetts native, Thompson said one of her first points of order when relocating to the Berkshires from Manhattan in 1986 was to visit Hancock Shaker Village and its bucolic campus.
Like many, her eyes became fixated on the beauty and innovative architecture of the site's 1826 Round Stone Barn, the museum's iconic centerpiece. But, she told The Eagle, she continued to fall in love with the Shaker ethic, philosophy and whole culture.
"It's a living history museum, yet the Shakers were so contemporary," she said.
"For one, to have a woman as a president, a founder, and to see that gender equality has been consistent is so impressive," Thompson said, referring Mother Ann Lee, who is considered to be the founder of the Shaker movement.
Two Elders and two Eldresses made up the Shakers' central ministry, established at Mount Lebanon, N.Y. They oversaw the spiritual and secular needs of 19 major Shaker communities extending from this region.
Within the Berkshire community of cultural institutions, Thompson is seen as a dedicated doer, a creative thinker, and future-minded planner.
"There are few professionals in the museum world as multi-talented as Jennifer Thompson," said Michael Conforti in a press statement.
Conforti, the former head of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and a Mass MoCA trustee. "Her expertise from fundraising to program development has been fundamental to the remarkable success of Mass MoCA over the years and those talents will make her an extraordinary leader for Hancock Shaker Village."
Mass MoCA also issued a statement on Wednesday, endorsing the village's decision to make "a brilliant hire."
"On balance, this is unquestionably a gain for the cultural life of the Berkshires, but I can't tell you how much we will miss Jennifer at Mass MoCA," said board Chairman Hans Morris, who also is a member of the local group that owns The Berkshire Eagle. "I join the board and staff in launching Roman candles and in sending bouquets of flowers in deep, heartfelt gratitude for her decades of excellent and spirited service to this institution."
Jennifer Trainer Thompson has more than 28 years of experience under belt, helping to organize and grow several departments at Mass MoCA since her 1988 hire in helping to establish the once fledgling institution.
She worked first as director of development and public relations, then as director of special events and membership, before being appointed to her current role in 2015. As Mass MoCA's director of development, she helped raise some $70 million for operations and programs, including the Permanence Campaign that launched the art museum's endowment and Sol LeWitt building.
That knowledge of culture and finance will come in handy.
Back in the spring, Steigleder told The Eagle of the institution's financial challenges. Membership, contributions and grants declined during and after the 2008 economic recession, ultimately turning a 2010 surplus of more than $1 million into a loss of more than $700,000 the following year. In March, Steigleder told The Eagle that the nonprofit's debt was less than $200,000.
"I have great admiration for Linda," Thompson said. "She has done a terrific job in stabilizing the village, which is absolutely essential for growth."
Steigleder was instrumental in raising $1.5 million to improve public access and visitor amenities at the historic site, from adapting restrooms to handicapped standards to restoring and renovating the exteriors of 20 out of the 23 buildings in the village.
Thompson, who has authored 22 books, including 10 cookbooks, and who raises heritage chicken breeds along with her two teenage children, Isabel, 13, and Trainer, 18, said she absolutely plans to follow her predecessor's lead and work with village staff, docents and other community partners to continue and also develop new offerings on a robust menu of public programs for all ages and interests.
"I can't imagine working for an organization I didn't believe in," she said, "and I think collaboration is the way of the future."
"Tremendous opportunities exist to build upon the foundation and successes of the past," she said, listing many of the museum and farm assets and amenities.
Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson affirmed Thompson's personal and professional drive. While separated in marriage, the two have continued their professional vision to steer Mass MoCA on a steady and progressive course. "There would simply be no Mass MoCA without her."
He added, "Jennifer loves new challenges: with its fascinating historical context, rich collection and plainly beautiful architecture — to say nothing of chickens! — Hancock Shaker Village is exactly Jennifer's kind of place, and it will be fun to watch her in action there."
Jennifer Trainer Thompson said she's always followed her instinct to where she feels compelled, and says she looks forward to her new role, her new commute and her new surroundings of people and activities at Hancock Shaker Village.
"It is a beautiful heritage site with extraordinary architecture. It's also a spiritual place that welcomes you and slows life down a bit," she said. "Like me, I think people today are craving authenticity and people crave knowing where things come from. This is a place to find that. It's inspiring."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.