Local non-profit suspends arts, cultural programs

(Courtesy File Photo) Standing Ceres, a sculpture by Kahlil Gibran, was recently donated to Forest Hills Cemetery by his widow, Jean Gibran (left), to replace Seated Ceres, which was stolen in 2008. Then-Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET) Director Cecily Miller (center) and Development Director Nini Colmore (right) join her after its arrival. The sculpture was officially unveiled at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Contemporary Sculpture Path on Oct. 24. All FHET programming and events were suspended and the employment of FHET staff ended last week.

Director steps down

FOREST HILLS—The Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET) rang in the new year by publicly announcing on Dec. 22 that all programming would be suspended indefinitely as of Dec. 31.

The FHET board said it wants to evaluate the future of the nonprofit organization that has done arts and cultural programming at Forest Hills Cemetery, outdoors and inside Forsyth Chapel, for the past 10 years.

The break in programming coincides with FHET’s Executive Director Cecily Miller leaving the organization at the end of December after heading the nonprofit since 2001. Two other part-time staff members, Jonathan Clark and Nini Colmore, have also been let go.

The suspension in programming, which could last for a while, is not because of a lack of money, Miller and FHET board Chair Bob Macleod said in an interview at Java Jo’s on Jan. 3. Macleod is also a former member of the separate non-profit Forest Hills Cemetery Board of Directors.

“The two organizations really need to work together to figure out what happens from this point,” Miller said.

FHET has sponsored and run contemporary art initiatives, concerts, poetry readings, history tours, education programs and signature events such as the annual Lantern Festival and Day of the Dead celebrations.

The group, which also acts as a friends group for the cemetery, has raised $2 million from over 1,400 donors to support its cultural programs, as well as preservation activities. Over 6,000 people attended last year’s events.

Both Macleod and Miller said that the FHET is not in financial trouble. Miller said the FHET has about $200,000 in investments, plus grants and charitable contributions toward particular events.

FHET is launching a planning effort that is asking for public input on its programs. For now, the trust is asking the community to fill out a survey and sign up for e-mail updates and meeting announcements through FHET’s web site, foresthillstrust.org.

“The planning process is an opportunity for people to have a voice while the trust thinks about what its next stage will look like,” Miller said.

“The cemetery [management] is very supportive of some of the trust’s programs like the Lantern Festival and history tours, but maybe it doesn’t see the arts programs or cultural programs as integral to its mission,” she added.

In a “planning update” scheduled to be sent to supporters this week, Macleod wrote, “For several years, the Cemetery Board has indicated that it would like to see a change in the direction of the Trust’s programs. While supporting history walking tours and the popular Lantern Festival, the Cemetery has communicated that the arts and cultural programs of the Trust are not priorities.

“We look forward to working with the board of Forest Hills Cemetery, the president of the cemetery, current proprietors, and the public to continue to develop our successful programs,” Macleod said in the Dec. 22 press release announcing the change.

George Milley, the president and CEO of Forest Hills Cemetery, did not return Gazette phone calls by press time.

“It’s very unfortunate. It’s disappointing,” said Harris Gardner, head of Tapestry of Voices, a poetry organization that sponsored a series of readings at the cemetery for many years. “They should keep some of their programs going while they evaluate. Having the community use the space for events really brought the cemetery to life.”

The Boston Globe has called the Forsyth Chapel venue, “the best place to hear poetry in Boston.”

Macleod did not seem in a hurry to see the programs reinstated when he spoke to the Gazette, however, preferring to take time coordinate efforts between the cemetery and FHET.

“‘In perpetuity’ is a very long time. Time is on your side [with a cemetery]. If you don’t accomplish something next year, you could do it the year following, or in five years,” he said. “That’s where this whole planning effort comes in. It’s important to understand how to do it in a way that suits both organizations…The boards have already started meeting towards that goal.”

“It was a good run. The community was very supportive of all the programs there,” Gardner said. “It’s too bad it appears to be going in another direction.”

As a “friends group of the cemetery” FHET has also served as a vehicle for those who wish to make charitable contributions to the cemetery, Miller said.

Given that the cemetery [management] has evolved, and is looking for a different direction [with the programming], it makes sense for it to be different leadership,” Miller said of her leaving.

“Forest Hills is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places in Boston. It has been an honor to work here, and I’ve learned so much,” Miller said in the press release. “I am grateful to everyone who has supported the Trust’s work and participated in our events.”

“Cecily has brought a vibrant contemporary perspective to these hallowed grounds, drawing thousands of people to discover one of Boston’s hidden gems and making their experiences more meaningful,” Macleod said in that same release.

“Ten years is a long time in one place. I feel like I’ve had a lot of success in developing a vision at Forest Hills. I’m really proud of it,” Miller said in the interview.

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