AVA director has brief engagement at Lebanon gallery, announces exit

  • Heidi Reynolds, of Hanover, N.H., director of the AVA Gallery & Art Center in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck—Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2021 9:43:09 PM
Modified: 5/7/2021 9:43:05 PM

LEBANON — Four months into her tenure as executive director at AVA Gallery and Art Center, Heidi Reynolds felt like she was starting to get her feet under her.

The nonprofit art center’s board had just approved a new five-year strategic plan and Reynolds was just at the point where she felt able to look past the day-to-day details of steering the ship toward the horizon.

That was in March 2020. What happened next is well-known. AVA closed on March 18 last year, emptying out its giant headquarters, the former H.W. Carter and Sons clothing factory at 11 Bank St. in Lebanon.

When I first started here, I knew it was going to be a slog for a while,” Reynolds said Friday. The slog, it turned out, had only just started.

After guiding the Upper Valley’s largest visual arts organization through the pandemic, Reynolds plans to step down. AVA announced Friday that June 30 will be her last day.

“She leaves an organization that is financially stable and that — remarkably — found opportunities for development and growth of new programming and outreach that will have a lasting impact beyond the pandemic,” Alan DiStasio, chair of AVA’s board of directors, said in a statement.

The board hopes to have a new executive director in place by Sept. 1, but that’s not a hard and fast deadline. “I think the most important thing is to find the right individual,” DiStasio said.

Reynolds is leaving for a change of lifestyle. Like many people who worked through the pandemic, she has given thought to her well-being and decided that now is a good time to make a change.

“I don’t have it figured out,” she said. But “I know, for my health, that I need to be doing something other than a desk job.” Last summer, she and partner Peter Bouchard, a business consultant who used to work at King Arthur Baking Co. in Norwich, planted a big garden, and Reynolds would like to turn it into a farmstand. She also hopes to return to an early interest in photography.

“We’ve got lots of options we’re talking about,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds’ departure opens the way for a new leader to execute both the board’s five-year plan and to prepare for AVA’s 50th birthday celebration, in 2023. Founded in a Norwich barn in 1973 as the Alliance for Visual Arts, AVA moved to Hanover, and then in 1990 to its Lebanon home. It has since purchased its building, renovated it and added a sculpture studies building that’s named for former longtime director Bente Torjusen.

In building AVA into a powerhouse during her 30-year tenure, Torjusen set a high standard for an executive director. The organization now comprises art exhibitions, education programs for all ages, a program for people with developmental disabilities, artist studios and, since the onset of the pandemic, virtual art classes, which will likely continue in some form as a way of opening AVA’s doors to more people.

“Being an executive director during COVID has taken a toll,” Reynolds said Friday. But even without the pandemic, leading AVA has been “all-consuming,” she said. Before she started work, on Nov. 1, 2019, she called it “a 100-hour-a-week job.”

It might be too much for one person, both Reynolds and DiStasio acknowledged, and the board is looking into whether AVA might be better served by a different leadership structure.

Reynolds cited the example of Northern Stage, where she worked in development before joining AVA. The White River Junction theater company has both an artistic director and a managing director, among other leadership posts. Paul N. “Trip” Anderson III, who succeeded Torjusen when she retired in 2016, had expanded the art center’s staff, but the organization ran a deficit and Anderson and AVA parted ways.

The center has always operated on a tight budget. Expenses were a little over $1.1 million, according to AVA’s 2018 tax forms.

During the past year, the center relied on federal Paycheck Protection Program money to avoid layoffs, receiving nearly $90,000 in the first round and another $93,000 in the second round, Reynolds said. AVA also received $177,000 from the Nonprofit Emergency Relief Fund and $60,000 from the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, to start an art program for military veterans and active-duty military families.

In addition to the veterans program, AVA also turned an art program for seniors into a virtual program, held via Zoom, which enabled the program to expand to more people and more days.

Reynolds said she plans to stay involved with AVA and the arts in general, citing their importance to the Upper Valley’s quality of life. “Supporting these nonprofit organizations is essential for the Upper Valley to remain a destination,” she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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