JP Observer: Who’s who at Forest Hills Cemetery?

Jamaica Plain lost hours of poetry, music, history and art walks, visual art exhibits, local history research, school tours, workshops, birding expeditions and annual Mexican- and Japanese-influenced festivals when all programs at Forest Hills Cemetery were suspended early this year.

The audiences for the cemetery’s unique arts and cultural programs often turned into customers at local businesses. The organization whose mission is to develop and oversee the programs, Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET), usually paid the folks who provided the programs. All of those community benefits disappeared on Jan. 1.

Since the programs were abruptly stopped to make time for “strategic planning,” community members have been asked to fill out an online survey about programming.

So far, only the crowd-pleasing Lantern Festival has been restored—for July 14—and one of three staffers who left was brought back part-time to run it.

There is quite a bit of money in FHET’s treasury. The prestigious Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) has steadily funded FHET programming over the years.

According to the state agency’s website, FHET was granted $5,500 for fiscal year 2011, which ends June 30, by MCC “…to expand and diversify public use of this magnificent cemetery and arboretum as a place for art, nature and remembrance through innovative and contemporary cultural programming, making Forest Hills accessible and meaningful for all.”

So, if money and public popularity were not problems, why shut down the programs to do a review? It appears the critical problems facing FHET revolve more around who than what. Two independent nonprofit organizations, each with its own board of directors, treasury and unique mission, are crucial to the programs’ survival—the nonprofit Forest Hills Cemetery and FHET.

The chairman of the FHET board has said that cemetery board members said that some of the arts and cultural programming determined by FHET as part of its mission are not their priorities.

The cemetery owns the cemetery property where FHET offices are and events take place. FHET, a non-rent-paying tenant founded by the cemetery in 1995, serves as an excellent promotions agent for the once little-known cemetery. As equals, neither nonprofit can tell the other what to do, but each needs the other.

Amazingly, there appears to be no written agreement about how the close relationship between the two groups is supposed to work. The role of dues-paying “members” in FHET is also unclear.

As part of strategic planning, the nonprofits need to formally agree about how they will work together, including how program decisions get made. They should share it with the public, including funders.

And FHET needs to develop ways its fee-paying “members” can regularly participate in FHET as an organization, including offering input about programs.

For the community to permanently lose extensive arts and cultural programming and the accompanying resources because two local nonprofit groups could not agree on how to work together would be a tragedy. For FHET to keep only a few programs that are quietly and unofficially sanctioned by cemetery board members would be a defeat. And, without any agreements about decision-making, who’s to say what would become of what’s left?



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