Q&A with Kassie Hilgert, ArtsQuest President/CEO

Q&A with Kassie Hilgert, ArtsQuest President/CEO

By Ann Wlazelek

ArtsQuest has a new leader at the helm. Kassie Hilgert, former senior vice president of marketing and advancement for the Bethlehem-based non-profit organization that runs Musikfest, Chriskindlmarkt and Steel Stacks, earned the position and was selected out of more than 30 candidates in a nationwide search for founder Jeff Parks’ successor at ArtsQuest.

Q. How did it feel to be chosen?

A. First, the fact that so many people applied from all over the country says a lot about ArtsQuest and the Lehigh Valley. The board’s unanimous vote was humbling and it gave me a clear consensus for moving forward.

Q. What task is first on your agenda when the transition becomes official in January?

A. The transition has started… I have been on a “listening tour,” talking to every person I can, staff, patrons, vendors, sponsors, elected officials and asking them what we do well, what we could improve on and also what arts and cultural programming gaps still exist. In the meantime, we are acutely focused on making our business model more sustainable which is a big challenge for any nonprofit. We have lots of opportunities in front of us and are fortunate to have so many people support our mission.

Q. Musikfest, the Banana Factory and the ArtsQuest Center are already major attractions in the Lehigh Valley, drawing a million or more guests to concerts, movies and artist studios.  So, what’s there to improve upon?

A. Yes, those are established brands, but that is a challenge in and of itself – to keep reinventing ourselves so that people can look forward to tried and true traditions, such as enjoying their favorite band at their favorite platz at Musikfest, but then they also see new things like 18-foot-tall dinosaurs on Main Street. As the nation’s largest free music festival, Musikfest should have a broader appeal nationally like FireFly (a premier music festival in Delaware)… we would like to be on that radar eventually. We also have a lot of opportunity for new programming such as the World Cup Viewing Party and Improv Comedy Festival.

Q. Will it be even more difficult to attract unique entertainment and experiences now that ArtsQuest will be competing with the new hockey arena in Allentown, the Sands Casino and event center in Bethlehem and other new ventures?

A. Some people call it competition, but we see it as opportunity.  The arena, Sands Event Center, Musikfest’s main stage and the Musikfest Cafe are all different size venues and attract different acts.  There is competition in that we all compete for the same entertainment dollar. The real beneficiaries of that competition are the residents of the Lehigh Valley. And competition is not a bad thing. Take Broadway, for example: People don’t go to Broadway because there is one theater. They go for the experience and because there are so much many choices and things to see and do.

Q. What do you like best about ArtsQuest and what needs work?

A. We are an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that brings big city cultural amenities to the Lehigh Valley. I like walking into the experience someone is having and hearing the reaction.  Recently at an artist’s reception, I fell upon two women who work at St. Luke’s and had relocated here from Washington, D.C. It was their first time at SteelStacks and I heard one say, “Oh my goodness, can you believe this is here in Bethlehem?” Helping people like that integrate into the Valley through cultural experiences excites me every day. 

Q. What was ArtsQuest’s budget this calendar year and how will it grow?

A. We are over $18 million this year and are always looking to grow that in a smart way that manages expenses. I call it “sustainable sizzle.” We remain committed to increasing access to the arts in a way that drives economic development in urban areas. Eighty percent of the people who attend our events don’t pay for a ticket. Musikfest, for example, has 13 free stages and Oktoberfest is also free.  We have over 2,200 members who understand that every show, even if it is free to them, costs money to put on. Every performer is paid, and stages and sound quality cost money.  With more than a million people attending Musikfest alone, we have a huge opportunity to solicit more support.

Q. How much is a membership and what perks come with it?

A. Memberships start at $100 and go to $1,000 a year. We also have the ArtsQuest Circle, a donor program that starts at $2,500 for businesses and individual contributions. Membership perks depend on the level but include early ticket sales, parking and meet-and-greet sessions with artists.

Q. I’ve read that you are a Penn State graduate, born in White Plains, N.Y., and moved to the Lehigh Valley more than 30 years ago. Tell us more.

A. Music is central to my life. I have over 15,000 songs in my music library at home. When I need to relax, I go into a room and try to build the world’s best playlists for friend’s parties, anniversaries or celebrations. I haven’t gotten paid for doing that yet which tells you how good I am at it!

But in all seriousness, I’ve always had a love for the arts.  My mom took me to a Broadway show when I was 13 to see Lauren Bacall in “Woman of the Year.”  Seeing a woman perform alone on a stage with no real props and hold an audience’s attention like that… well, I was hooked.   

I acted in high school and even won a “Best Character Actress” Award at a tri-state competition in high school. It was a transformational experience for me.  I still have the award hanging on my wall but I don’t see acting in my immediate future. I think I have a pretty full plate now.

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