Born to lead Kassie Hilgert looks to ArtsQuest’s future on SteelStacks’ fifth anniversary
On July 15, 2014, Kassie Hilgert, ArtsQuest senior vice-president for marketing and advancement, was sitting in her second-floor office looking out at the rusting monoliths that once had been the blast furnaces of the former southside Bethlehem plant where steel-making ended in 1995 with Bethlehem Steel Corp. filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Downstairs at ArtsQuest Center, a decision was being made by the ArtsQuest Board of Trustees that would change her life.
Hilgert had applied for the soon-to-be-vacated position of ArtsQuest president and CEO with the retirement after 31 years of Jeff Parks, the inspirational founder and driving force behind Musikfest, Christkindlmarkt, the Banana Factory, and most recently the SteelStacks entertainment venue. She was one of 30 applicants in the nationwide search, and the whole process was very confidential, Hilgert remembers. “I still don’t know who some of the candidates were.”
What she does know now is what was decided that day and what the first indication was of that decision. “I was sitting at my desk and Jeff appeared in the doorway. He opened his arms out and smiled, and I knew.” Later that day, Hilgert was informed that the 20-member ArtsQuest board had unanimously voted to appoint her as the non-profit’s second president and CEO.
Hilgert has been asked many times if Parks had her in mind as his successor when he first recruited her to work for ArtsQuest in 2008. She says Parks talked about it as a possibility, but told her she would have to work hard and prove herself. “I never thought it was a given.”
The emotions Hilgert says she felt at the time were conflicting. “I was hesitant and confident and excited. There’s no way to take over a CEO position and not have some hesitancy.” On the other hand, she says she felt confident that she would be up to the challenge. So where did that confidence come from?
She says there were three sources: The board’s unanimous support, the expertise of the staff and the public’s response. “We have people with deep experience, like setting up festival tents; something I don’t have to deal with.”
As for the public’s response, she recalls the many cards and emails of congratulations and other expressions of support. “It looked like a funeral parlor in here with all the flowers I received.” She laughs and points to the back of the room. “Those trees were also from well-wishers.”
Hilgert says her partner Susan Lawless was also very supportive. “She’s a lawyer in New Jersey. She understood that in small businesses you do more than just 9-5.” The couple met in 1998 and now live in Hanover Township, Northampton County, with their rescue cats Noah and Tuck.
Now, a year and a half later, and in the fifth anniversary year of the SteelStacks campus, the 44-year old Hilgert is still sure she was the right choice for CEO, and that the job is the right fit for her background, personality traits and professional experience.
Hilgert was born in White Plains, N.Y., but moved with her family to North Carolina when she was six-months-old. At age 10, her parents brought her and her older brother to Salisbury Township. “I got my love of music from my brother. We would sit in his room and listen to his collection of LPs. I thought he was the coolest thing in the world.”
She was 14 when she first attended Musikfest. “I don’t remember it so much for the music. It was an event and we just hung out.” She was very impressed, though, with one aspect of the festival. “There was a sea of people on Main Street. That was cool.”
At Salisbury High School, she got the acting bug, appearing in supporting roles in “Any Body for Tea” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.”
“I got my love of theater from my mother,” Hilgert says. “She took me to Broadway to see Lauren Bacall in a play. There was something different when the lights came on and you could watch a live person perform. I was transfixed.”
Hilgert auditioned for a theater scholarship to The Pennsylvania State University. “I did a scene from ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ and the opening monologue from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I was alone with one light and no props. I just had to do it.”
And so she did. She was offered the scholarship on the spot. “My mother would have liked it,” Hilgert says of her performance.
Hilgert wound up not going to Penn State, at least, not right away, and not studying theater. Her father, who had worked all his life in finance, convinced her that acting was not an economically viable career choice for his daughter.
Why did she let him change her mind? “I don’t think I had the self-confidence,” she answers. “I didn’t know the path. I didn’t know people in the field. I grew up with business people, and I knew what that was like.”
Today, she jokes that she and her father have come full circle, proving him wrong about the career potential of the arts. Also, in hindsight, she says her brief theater experience has proven valuable because on stage you have to be prepared for anything, to be able to improvise. “If another actor forgets his lines you have to pick up and go on.”
Nonetheless, she gave up thoughts of a theater career and enrolled at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. “My brother went to Penn State, so I wanted to go my own way, but after my first class I knew it was a catastrophic mistake.” After one year, she enrolled at Penn State, where she was a columnist for the campus newspaper and received a bachelor’s degree in speech communication.
Not bad for a girl who when she was in sixth grade was told by a career counselor that “she was not college material.” Hilgert says the “not college material” statement has always been in the back of her mind. “I’m a hyper-competitive person, and I saw it as a challenge. For me, it was also a leadership lesson, to be very careful of the impact you have on people.”
Although Hilgert admits that when she graduated “she didn’t have a clue for what she wanted to do with her degree,” that was soon to change. An internship with MedStar Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company producing medical news and information, led to a full-time job as an associate producer of “Health Matters.” The half-hour television show, produced in cooperation with local hospitals, was aired on commercial and PBS stations nationwide. That meant lots of travel for Hilgert, even to Hollywood.
That exposure acquainted her with the many support functions behind the stage or the camera, Hilgert says, and led her to a different view of the arts. “It is a business, a career. I had no idea any of that existed.”
In 1998, Hilgert was back home working as director of marketing for the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network. “My time at Good Shepherd taught me the importance of having passion in what you are doing.” Hilgert uses that word “passion” a lot. “The staff at Good Shepherd went all out. I really liked that. It never felt like work.”
After five years, Hilgert joined Air Products as senior communications specialist. Two years, later she was promoted to manager of community relations and philanthropy when she became acquainted with Jeff Parks and his vision.
In all her positions she says she was exposed to many different career situations, like talking to the media. “Every job that I’ve ever had, I had never done before. I learned on the job.” Being able to deal with those different job challenges, she says, helped her gain confidence. She also recognizes the opportunities that she had to observe leadership in action, which she says helped prepare her for being ArtsQuest CEO.
“You need to be able to see yourself in a leadership role to know you can do it. You need to understand the sacrifices you have to make.” For her, she says, “There were no surprises. I knew that the minute you are in the job you will lose control of your calendar and your time. Knowing it was coming, I didn’t panic. I knew this is what happens.”
Nevertheless, Hilgert admits that taking over for a visionary like Jeff Parks, who was the face and inspiration of the organization for 31 years, has its own unique set of challenges.
“Every day is a challenge. Can I create a vision of my own and not get caught up trying to be him [Parks]?”
Hilgert had six years with ArtsQuest to prepare for becoming president and CEO. “It was the perfect amount of time, but I didn’t feel that way the first day I walked into the office and Jeff wasn’t there, when the safety net wasn’t there.” That was only a moment, she knows now. “He was always a phone call away.”
She still reaches out to Parks, who is now the ArtsQuest Foundation’s first executive director, but she has her own vision and looks to put her own stamp on things. She wants ArtsQuest to “stay in the business of the unexpected,” such as sponsoring sporting events like Soccer Fest, or non-music strolling performers at Musikfest. The 32nd annual Musikfest is Aug. 5-14.
Hilgert wants to blend the Banana Factory and ArtsQuest Center, with a crossover of performances and visual arts in both spaces.
Long-term, she says, she wants to build and grow a sustainable model to raise risk capital to fund visual spectacles like those seen in Hong Kong or London, and on which ArtsQuest could afford to lose money. She talks about what the research that tells her that people are willing to travel for an experience, and that where they live they want all the amenities of large cities without the hassle.
Above all, Kassie Hilgert wants to continue to bring exposure to the arts and music to others. “Those things matter to me.”