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Apr 26, 2017

Brave new presidency

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Image: Let’s Talk About Bikes opening reception. Credit: Ben Gebo

What is that Chinese proverb? May you be BSA President during interesting times? I think I hit the jackpot during my tenure. I remember two important conversations with BSA executive director Margaret Wigglesworth that were emblematic of my year. The first occurred in late November as the staff was just starting to get moved into and learn how to operate within the new BSA Space. While it may be hard to realize now, there was a massive effort to get settled into both new physical and operational environments. As I began to discuss the plans with her for my big year as president, Margaret said,” Laura, let’s keep things simple. Let’s just focus this year on making sure everyone feels welcome at the BSA.” Although I felt a bit crushed at the time, in retrospect it was a good call. She knew the complexity of the move to Congress Street and probably knew, even then, about an upcoming train wreck that was just down the track. That train wreck was the topic of our second pertinent conversation about five weeks later in which she said, “Laura, I am leaving.” After 24 years of consistency with Richard Fitzgerald as our executive director, in what seemed like a flash, we burned through two new executive directors in less than three years. Smith & Wollensky became my second office, within which were emergency meetings with staff and executive board members in rapid succession. Fortunately, fortified with plenty of wine and crab cakes and with Eric White and Ann Fienman sliding back into their now familiar positions as co-interim managing directors the BSA managed to carry on. We really did try to keep it simple and did stay focused on opening the BSA’s doors and making everyone feel welcome. Amidst other BSA presidents recalling their great achievements during their year in office, perhaps mine pales. During my year we learned how to party in BSA Space!

Of course the prime example was the opening of the Let’s Talk About Bikes exhibition. Under the curatorship of over,under, BSA Space went wild. Highly pierced biker dudes rubbed elbows with bow-tied CEOs. Everyone had a good time, and the biggest challenge was keeping a sidewalk pathway open among all the bikes parked along Congress Street. Oops, there was one other glitch: So many people were having such a good time talking about design that no one could hear as I gave my carefully prepared speech on the importance of having conversations about design.

Openings and more parties followed (let’s not forget the salt pile!), and the number and range of programming and events burgeoned. Amidst all the openings, some serious work did get accomplished. We set up and successfully completed our third search in four years for a new executive director (the third is the charm, Eric!), worked to reinvigorate the BSA’s impact on public policy, and restructured committees to engage younger members in leadership roles. I will be forever awed by Anne Fienman’s sensitivity to each individual’s concerns as we worked though that one! We initiated Client Conversations as well as the new Exhibitions Committee. As with all things at the BSA every new initiative was preceded by bringing people together for thoughtful strategic planning, in-depth soul searching, and just the right amount of angst. Then, once everything was up and running, it was all modified on the fly. A perfect recipe for success.

Certainly one of the triumphs of that year was the buyout of Build Boston and then the transition from Build Boston to ABX (ArchitectureBoston Expo). Buying out a contract that was written to last into perpetuity for a major tradeshow was no small feat. Led by Margaret, but with Carole Wedge FAIA advising, along with Ben Cohen and Billy Craig and ultimately with Eric and the entire BSA staff, that change continues to have positive ramifications for the BSA and all its members. The bold but necessary jump from the World Trade Center to the BCEC coupled with a name change from the old (beloved Build Boston to the edgier ABX), was not easy and was definitely accompanied by more than the usual amount of angst, but it has ultimately proven to be successful beyond anyone’s dreams.

Despite the challenges, I feel very fortunate to have been the BSA president. Certainly my clearest and most precious memories are of the kindness, support, and immense skill of the BSA staff. Being president was a great privilege, and the staff made it a great joy.

Laura Wernick FAIA, 2012 BSA president