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Straight from The Source, a regular interview series taking you behind-the-scenes to Southeast Michigan’s cultural destinations to hear from the curators, programmers, leaders, doers and makers.

What are you best known for?

I’m known for my kindness. I carry the heart of the organization. I have a way of being able to listen that makes people comfortable no matter what their background is—if they come from a disenfranchised background or have a lot of money. I realized over time that wasn’t common; I thought everyone was that way. I used to think my kindness was a liability as a leader, but overtime, in retrospect, I see how it’s very much an asset to be kind and anticipate the best out of people.

What would you like to be known for? 

I’d like to be known for building and maintaining a really great team. The organization’s been through a lot of change over the past 10 years. We were part of the city, then there was a period of three to four years where there wasn’t a consistent leader. I’ve been here now for five years, and I’m now leading a union between the Leslie Science and Nature Center (LSNC) and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum (AAHOM). Down the road, I’d love to be known as someone who makes Leslie become stable and thrive.

Susan LeslieWhat can organizations learn from working together, like the Leslie Science and Nature Center’s recent partnership with the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum?

I think a lot of people are looking to see how it plays out. Our cultures are distinctly different—one is a museum with an admission-based facility, while the other is a nature center with grounds open to the public.

The two nonprofits are maintaining separate names, brands, and programs, while building a unified structure, which includes sharing staff and building conjoined programs. The intention is to retain the individuality of these beloved organizations, but to share staff in order to become stronger together.

Meshing two different cultures takes a whole lot of trust. Mel [Drumm, Executive Director at AAHOM] and I went through a year-long process with our boards. The two leaders have to be completely open and transparent with one another. 

How will you measure that this is a successful, working partnership?

In the future, if we can define success, both organizations are thriving financially, both are healthy and have support financially—including a donor base, grants, program fees. Mel and I both talk about a full-time shared grant writer—I’ve never had a grant writer. 

For our staff, we can pay them a liveable wage where they can stay and continue to develop the high educational programs we both are known for. One of the many reasons we want to work together is we value our employees and want to provide the best benefits and support to keep them. 

We have a wealth of ideas that we need to put into action. I would love to have a volunteer docent system like at an art museum to take visitors on a hike and answer questions about what you saw in the woods. To develop a visitors center and support it with volunteers is part of our vision for the future.

What does a vibrant arts and cultural community mean to you?

Having a music background, I recognize that nature has informed and inspired every art form. In music, you have [Vivaldi’s] “The Four Seasons”; in dance, you often mimic nature in its movement. With painting, drawing, even theater has drawn on nature in many different ways. So for me, they really don’t exist without each other. In that vein, a nature center helps us cherish the natural world and make sure it doesn’t get lost, which is really easy in this day and age.

"A nature center helps us cherish the natural world and make sure it doesn’t get lost, which is really easy in this day and age."

Communities investing in the natural world, in a park system, is critical in the cultural community, whether it be from parks to throw a frisbee to more of a formal nature center where you can learn together and explore together. 

We host bonfires at Leslie. It sounds so benign, but I was pleasantly surprised that it drew the community outside, people who live in apartments and don’t have a place to gather. People see us as a place for the community to be and share stories. We’re located on the north side of Ann Arbor, which has a very strong international student population, and a nature center can bring together different cultures where everyone is equal. 

Ann Arbor invests so much in its park, and it’s wonderful to see how vibrant that can make a community, as well as when the arts very intentionally intersect with nature. UMS brought an arts group who did a dance piece on the Huron River about 20 years ago. In Chicago, there’s a puppet festival that includes projections onto buildings. This interaction of the natural world makes it a whole different experience than just sitting in an auditorium. 

What local cultural destination have you visited recently?

I’m at Hands-On twice a week. I have little kids (six and nine), so we often go to Wild Swan Theater. I stay local, whether it be The Ark, the University of Michigan Art Museum or the Michigan Theater. And my husband plays in the Jackson Symphony Orchestra.

Who, to you, epitomizes arts and culture in Michigan? 

My first job out of college was at UMS, so Ken Fischer immediately pops to mind. He’s everywhere. Hill Auditorium as a place. I played there in high school and then at UMS. I was backstage quite a bit, so it has a lot of meaning to me.

When you have visitors in from out of town, what is the one cultural destination you make sure they see during their visit? 

My house backs up to a city park, so always the Ann Arbor city parks. I know that seems a little self-serving, but I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place that has over 150 city parks. They invest so much in having pretty amazing land. 

What excites you most about the future of SE MI’s arts and culture scene?

I think we face a lot of challenges currently with the political climate, and it can be so daunting that it freezes us. I see it as an opportunity, certainly for my community, to be really vocal in its support of arts and cultural institutions and to vocalize our personal support for arts and culture entities. We are standing up and saying this matters, that there needs to be broad support for institutions. That’s really critical. In a way, that’s exciting. We’re being challenged to not just be passive and stand up and say this matters, but this moment has the potential to be transformative.

We often have the luxury of being more passive participants in attending performances, or enjoying a local park or nature program, and we are challenged right now to stand up and voice our support towards those institutions and causes that make our communities unique and add value to our lives. 

Additionally, artists are coming to Southeast Michigan from other countries—they have to get visas, they have to get in through airports, and artists in general rely on grants to support their work. This is an opportunity for nonprofits to work together and make sure they’re informed. We can partner together, share information and inform our public, which is a really important role we as nonprofits can play.