Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 19, 2013
Kestenbaum marks 25 years as executive director of Haystack
[It’s] really the place I want to be, he says
Stu Kestenbaum, left, talks with Chris Staley in the pottery studio. Kestenbaum has served as executive director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts for 25 years.
by Jessica Brophy
For the past 25 years, Stu Kestenbaum has served as the executive director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
“It doesn’t seem like that long ago,” said Kestenbaum. “The way the programs operate, there’s new things every year. It’s renewing.”
New Jersey native Kestenbaum was a potter in the mid-1970s when he discovered Maine through his sister-in-law and was drawn here. “I had never been to a place as rural and sparse,” he said. Alice Hildebrand, the former pastor of Deer Isle Congregational Church, was a college friend of Kestenbaum’s and invited him to visit Flye Point in Brooklin.
He had attended Haystack as a student and knew of it. “I really liked it,” he said. “It felt like an amazing community.”
He spent eight years working for the Maine Arts Commission, which did a lot of support work for the arts communities, but very little hands-on work. “I became assistant director there, and learned a lot about what impact arts programs can have on the state,” he said. However, working for the state had drawbacks—including a lack of freedom to innovate, and being removed from the arts scene.
“When I saw the job come open [at Haystack], I thought ‘that’s really the place I want to be,’” he said.
The basic summer program has remained more or less the same, he said, though many of the other programs have changed over the 25 years of his directorship. Kestenbaum said the school always had a strong international pull, and many of the programs that have been in the works over the past few decades have been about improving local offerings, with the Studio-Based Learning program for area high school students and community-based artist residencies.
“Institutions shouldn’t just be somewhere and not be part of that place,” said Kestenbaum. The thought drives him to seek programming as rich and high-quality all the time, not just during the summer sessions.
The biggest challenge has been (and will continue to be) maintaining the facilities, said Kestenbaum, “the sheer scale of the place, all of the wooden buildings and walkways on the coast.” Deferring maintenance can cause problems, so there’s constant effort to replace pilings, walkways, and buildings, and expand when it makes sense.
“This is part of American architectural history,” said Kestenbaum of the campus. “We are stewards of those buildings, which are now on the National Register [of Historic Places].”
What remains important to Kestenbaum is the spirit of the school—“The idea of craft, attention to detail, knowing materials,” he said. The current efforts by Haystack to create the Fab Lab and bring together scientists and artists is “rooted in the idea of craft.”
It isn’t difficult to bring people to Haystack, said Kestenbaum. “The remarkable thing about Haystack is that its location and architecture help create an instant community,” he said. “There isn’t ever anyone who doesn’t want to be there. It’s a place that slows time down.”
When asked about standout moments over the past 25 years, Kestenbaum says there are too many to single out. “Instead, it’s more like the many times during a program or a session that I’ll think ‘this is what we do, this is what we should be doing,” he said. Looking around the dining room in the summer, an 18-year-old local person might be talking to someone with years of experience, and there might also be someone from another country talking with them.
“In the time they’re together, they make a community,” said Kestenbaum. “It’s those moments when something you don’t even expect happens. We become that community, it takes on a life of its own. Every time we’re doing that, it’s what makes the place what it is.”