- Pamela Polston
- Sage Tucker-Ketcham
After almost eight years as executive director of the Shelburne Craft School, Sage Tucker-Ketcham is moving on. When she first took the reins in 2010, the venerable institution was at a low point: The recession had forced SCS to close an external art and craft gallery on the village green and — like just about every nonprofit — to tighten its belt. As a result, the school focused on reinvigorating its educational mission and on recovery. According to Tucker-Ketcham, the school has done just that.
"I love the craft school," she said, "and I feel we are in a great place for me to go."
On a Saturday morning tour of the school, which opened in 1945, the place looked in many ways as it has for decades. The horseshoe-shaped cluster of yellow wood-frame buildings on Harbor Road still houses well-worn classrooms for painting, glasswork, metal, woodworking and ceramics, as well as a few individual artist studios. The school annually serves some 2,500 students — all ages, beginner to professional — with classes and camps. A small adjacent gallery, originally a harness shop, displays some of their wares.
Over the years, of course, SCS has evolved: The woodworking studio has expanded and, according to Tucker-Ketcham, is bustling. Classes have been added and youth programs expanded.
In 2015, the state recognized the school's "excellence in craft education" by granting it the coveted designation of Vermont Craft Center. More recently, SCS got a new roof, and notable Maine potter Mary Sweeney donated a huge gas-fired kiln to the clay studio — a generous gift worth many thousands of dollars.
Like any nonprofit arts organization, SCS has weathered inevitable financial vagaries over the years. At present, things are looking up.
"We own the property outright," Tucker-Ketcham, 40, said proudly. "When I started, we were $80,000 in debt, and everything was breaking.
"Right now we're 75 percent self-funded," she continued, citing tuition and grants. "The 25 percent gap I can raise every year."
She does so with the help of a devoted nine-person board, which Tucker-Ketcham applauded for providing "work and knowledge." But, even though the school is "back to its 2006 to '07 heyday," she added, the job of ensuring success never stops. What the school needs, she suggested, is "someone to come in and raise the dough."
As far as board president David Webster is concerned, Tucker-Ketcham has done everything expected of her and then some. "She's very enthusiastic and entrepreneurial," he said. "Those were two things we sorely needed. She also took the school for what it is and embraced it."
Webster, who grew up in Shelburne — next door to school founder Rev. Lynwood Smith — noted that Tucker-Ketcham has "dealt with the facilities that are old and have a certain charm. While Sage has been there, the systems have really been upgraded. She's enjoyed that aspect, too, and is leaving [the school] in good shape."
For her part, Tucker-Ketcham marveled at her personal growth over the past eight years. "You couldn't pay for the education I've had in business," she said, "being able to be in charge of something but have the support and encouragement of my board. They trust me," she added with a smile.
"It's extremely humbling," she went on. "Ego at a craft school doesn't work. As [board vice president] Jonathan [Harris] keeps saying, it's an ecosystem." That ecosystem includes education director and visual art instructor Wylie Sophia Garcia, woodshop studio manager and lead instructor Ryan Cocina, and clay studio manager and lead instructor Rik Rolla, among others.
"Building a team is huge," Tucker-Ketcham observed. "That's what I'll miss the most: the amazing team."
She has grown as an artist, too, Tucker-Ketcham said; somehow, with a full-time job and a son, now 5, she's squeezed in time to paint. She previously earned her BFA and MFA at the Maine College of Art and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, respectively, and is now represented by Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury. Most recently, Tucker-Ketcham has been working on a "places and landscapes" series, small paintings of spare, almost abstracted houses with stark, minimalist backgrounds.
In a way, these stripped-down images foreshadow her next move. Tucker-Ketcham said she plans to "help out" in her husband Dave Parsons' real estate office at RE/MAX North Professionals, where he's president of the Condo Guy Team. She expects the change will allow her more time for painting.
Meantime, the business of art and craft making will continue at SCS. Webster said the board is "going through a strategic planning process" before it seeks a new director. "The school is trying to figure out where it's going from here, but every organization does that," he said. "We're 70-plus years old; things are cyclical."
One cycle that probably will not be repeated: trying to expand on the school's essential mission. "Sage improved the school, but she was not an empire builder, which I think is important for nonprofit organizations," Webster observed. "She's a wonderful mix of business and artistic know-how; she built within the framework that was needed."