By M. D. Drysdale
The new executive director of the Chandler Center for the Arts will be a Michigan man who sent his application for the position from Thailand during a trip around the world with his wife Janine.
Kurt Thoma and his wife fell in love with Vermont during trip here a seven years ago and “kept finding excuses to come back,” he told The Randolph Herald.
He was working at the time as operations manager at a 3500-seat orchestra hall at the University of Michigan when he and Janine decided to take two years off to travel before deciding what to do with the rest of his life.
He knew he wanted to stay in arts administration, and he wanted to live in Vermont.
While in Thailand, Thoma said, “I began to get an itch” and decided to start his job search then and there. He went online and typed the search words “Vermont,” “Executive Director” and “Performing Arts Center.”
Chandler Music Hall popped right up on the screen. Just weeks before, Rebecca McMeekin had told her board she wanted to step down after 16 years at the helm.
Thoma, who is 38, sent in his formal application from his next international stop-as a volunteer on a horse farm in Tasmania. He was interviewed by the Board of directors last month.
Looked around town
Before the interview, he told The Herald, he spent a week in Randolph, sleeping at Allis State Park and Lake Champagne Campground.
“It was precisely the type of town we were looking for,” Thoma said. He became even more excited when, traveling here and there around town, he found that “everybody I talked to had some association with Chandler.”
It was a couple of weeks before the youth production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” so he stopped in at rehearsals. “It was truly amazing,” he said “I could not be more excited.”
The Chandler Board was just as excited and hired him on the spot. “He’s the most enthusiastic person!” said Board Chair Janet Watton. Her impression, she said, is that he is not driven by ego, but by a genuine desire to make things happen in the arts.
“He just loves the concept of bringing the arts to the community, be it art, music of all genres, or theater. It was his overwhelming enthusiasm to be in Vermont, to become acquainted, be a part of it, and dig into the job that convinced me that we had found the right new person.”
Thoma’s career in the arts started early. As a college student he founded a theater residency program in rural Michigan, beginning with two volunteers and $200. In 17 years, he said, the “Acting Up Theatre” grew to have a $100,000 annual budget and five employees while serving 84 schools, libraries and community groups.
Later, as campus art director for Northwood University in Texas, he designed and built an art gallery and oversaw the construction of an outdoor amphitheater.
Despite these bricks-and-mortar accomplishments, Thoma counts his strong point as “community involvement and arts outreach,” adding that he earned his stripes in very rural Michigan “where there were more deer than people.”
His wife, 38, worked at the University of Michigan in lighting design and has been a technical director at a theater.
In Randolph, Thoma will take over a program that expanded exponentially during McMeekin’s tenure-going from about nine annual events to more than 50, plus a collection of festivals, two of which are coming right up-the, the Central Vermont Music Festival, and the New World Festival. He also inherits a historic building that was renovated and expanded on its 100th birthday in 2007, a $3.5-million investment. He will work the last two weeks of August with McMeekin, who will retire at the end of the month.
Thoma is looking forward to building exciting programming, but also to meeting Vermonters. “We loved the beauty of nature, and the rolling hills,” he said of his visits here. “But what it really came down to was that every person we met had great stories. It was an interesting culture with really fantastic people… We decided we wanted to be around good people.”
M. Dickey Drysdale is the publisher of the Randolph Herald. Reprinted with permissions.