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New Director knows all about the art and craft of success

By DIANE HEILENMAN The Courier-Journal
From Aug. 8, 1999

Mary Elizabeth Miller
Mary Elizabeth Miller looked at ceramics by Laura Ross and Walter Hyleck at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery in Louisville.
Photo by MARY ANN LYONS

Mary Elizabeth Miller's new job could have been scripted by a central casting director.

For 14 years, the new head of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation has held top spots at Chicago's Steppenwolf  Theatre. She replaces Rita Steinberg, who left the foundation last year after spending 14 years building it from a marketing and promotion idea in a borrowed office in a Main Street basement to a respected gallery and retail shop with national impact.

A decade ago Steppenwolf was, like the foundation now, a non-profit company with a budget of $1.5 million poised to grow. Steppenwolf expanded from a 134-seat theater in a converted dairy barn to a three-stage educational center in a new, $8 million facility with more than 500 seats. Miller was named assistant to the general manager in 1985 and became general manager in '87.

The Art and Craft Foundation is poised to move, looking at either a building to renovate or a site for a new building, probably in the East Market Street area. The goal is to stay downtown and add a craft museum and an education center to the current programs of temporary exhibitions and classes.

Miller, who begins work Sept. 7, was selected from 90 candidates, said Marlene Grissom, who led the five-member search committee for the foundation.

"She's fabulous," said Grissom. "She works so well with everybody, the board, the staff, members of the art community in Chicago."

Miller's skills include the ability to lead and still leave "a lot of room" for the staff to shine, said Grissom.

"I had some trepidation about an organization that had been leaderless" for nine months, said Miller. I was a little concerned, but the staff says: 'We've got a great board,' and the board says: 'We've got a great staff.' It's encouraging that the organization has gotten along so smoothly without an executive director," Miller said.

Miller noted that Steppenwolf and the foundation were started by a handful of committed people. Steppenwolf began as three high school students producing plays in their basements. This nucleus grew to a 32-member ensemble company with international ties.

The three Kentuckians who fell in love with crafts -- then Phyllis George Brown, then the state's first lady, and Louisville philanthropists Mary and Al Shands -- have taken their interest into a local and nationally noted powerhouse of craft marketing and promotion with dozens of board members, volunteers and staff.

The lure of the job also was in the timing.

Chicago has been an inspiring place to build a career, Miller said, but she and her husband, Caleb Miller, think Louisville is a smaller, better place for raising their children, 4-year-old Mary Frances and 21-month-old Caleb. The Millers have relatives in Kentucky and visit regularly. "In the cab on the way to the airport, we'd wonder why we couldn't stay," she said.

Miller, 40, was raised in Wisconsin. She moved to Chicago and later to Boston for jobs in banking after graduation with a degree in economics from Lake Forest (Ill.) College. When her father, a retired Lutheran bishop, underwent triple-bypass surgery in the 1980s, she moved back to Chicago to be closer to her family. There, she went to "probably the third play I'd ever seen in my life" and fell in love with Steppenwolf.

Along the way, she met her husband-to-be, for whom the move to Louisville means leaving his job as senior front-of-house manager, the person who oversees public facilities like the bar and the parking lot at Steppenwolf. Miller said her husband plans to stay home with the kids while the family settles into a new home.

Although Miller said there is "a huge learning curve" ahead for her, Grissom said that a gap in Miller's crafts knowledge is not important because she has such strengths in other areas, such as fiscal management, organization, writing and getting along with people.

Miller said the major challenge for her and the foundation is to "responsibly operate a non-profit organization" as it doubles in size. "Without a covered bottom line, you can't continue," much less grow, she noted. Miller said plans are to expand the foundation's national reputation with services like more traveling exhibitions and to increase a state presence with more education programs that mesh with state goals for student proficiency.

What it amounts to is exactly the challenge she has been meeting in Chicago, said Miller: how to maintain "the delicate balance between artistic experimentation and fiscal responsibility."

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