ArtsQuest president works to strengthen community outreach

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ArtsQuest president and CEO Kassie Hilgert aims to better integrate the organization and the Bethlehem community. Since assuming her position as president, she has already made a significant amount of progress at ArtsQuest. (Courtesy of Kassie Hilgert)

Directly across from Kassie Hilgert’s desk is a framed photo of SteelStacks. Red, purple and blue lights shine on the stacks, but dark, ominous clouds overshadow these bright colors.

The photo was taken during a sold-out Lady Antebellum concert at Musikfest in August 2016, when the weather report said a short 30-minute storm would roll through Bethlehem.

The storm was predicted to be filled with lightning and thunder — something the SteelStacks stage cannot handle.

“That’s nothing but a giant metal box,” Hilgert said. As the president of ArtsQuest, she decided she had to remove the 6,500 concert goers from the main area.

Hilgert only had 20 minutes to evacuate the stage before the storm struck. Through the cooperation of her team, firefighters and the visitors, they were able to safely get people into buildings and cars.

Everyone was shoulder-to-shoulder and yelling down stairwells just to get updates. Members had to resort to social media to communicate between the buildings. After an hour, the staff got everyone back to the stage to watch the show.

Hilgert said it was one of the best shows ArtsQuest ever hosted.

“It is a sign of a great leader,” said Mark Demko, ArtQuest’s senior director of communications. “She is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Hilgert is the second president and CEO of the nonprofit organization, which is the ninth largest arts organization in Pennsylvania. In her role, she strives to increase and improve resources for the Lehigh Valley.

Hilgert was chosen by a unanimous board vote to take over the institution after a national search.

“It was certainly humbling when they selected me,” Hilgert said. “I was filled with excitement, but at the same time an extraordinary amount of fear.”

Mark Wonsidler, a curatorial associate for exhibitions, collections and publications of Lehigh University Art Gallery, said he knew Hilgert would be offered the position.

They have known each other since they were 14 years old.

Wonsidler said in eighth grade, Hilgert realized that if every girl voted for the same class election candidate, that  candidate would win because the boys were splitting votes among the candidates. Her strategy was successful.

“She has always been a charismatic, ambitious and exciting person to be around,” Wonsidler said. “It’s exciting to see other people see what I’ve known all along.”

Patrick Brogan, the chief programming officer and manager of the ArtsQuest center, said Hilgert is always the smartest person in any room. She listens to everyone’s ideas, motivates the staff to achieve their own goals and has a “relentless” work ethic.

Demko said the nonprofit has grown under Hilgert’s management because of her passion for the organization and the community. The number of young people reached by ArtsQuest’s educational programming has doubled over the past two years, yet there are plans to increase outreach.

Hilgert wants to transition the Banana Factory from an arts center to a community cultural center. To make ArtsQuest sustainable, she said they need to make the building reflect the changing, growing Bethlehem community.

Brogan said the organization has already positively changed the community with the strong team Hilgert has created.

ArtsQuest has more than 1,800 volunteers, holds 11 festivals a year and offers hundreds of programs, of which about 40 percent are free.

One of the most popular events is Musikfest. Hilgert said that between the music and food, her favorite part of the festival is when she can disappear. She likes to be in the middle of the crowd and just look around.

An old couple smiling. Families laughing. A baby with his sippy cup in hand. She said those are the moments that make the busy job with no fixed schedule worth it.

“No major moments, just small moments,” Hilgert said. “There’s a million magical moments in this position.”

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