Cemetery chief talks future of art programs

The abrupt, mysterious suspension of popular arts programs at Forest Hills Cemetery last year was actually part of a “positive” reevaluation process that is getting the programs back on track, cemetery CEO George Milley told the Gazette this week in the first detailed interview given by any insider in the controversy.

“I think it’s all a positive,” said Milley, describing a review of the arts programs that already has brought some of them back. That includes the popular Buddhist-themed Lantern Festival, which is tentatively slated for July 12, he revealed. New programming will come, too, including horticultural tours.

But Milley also acknowledged some problems with the Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET), the nonprofit trust founded by the 1848 cemetery to promote and preserve its historic elements. FHET programs were often costing far more than they brought in, causing the trust’s endowment to dip, he said. And he indicated that the programs sometimes veered from the trust’s cemetery-history mission into more generic arts programming.

While the public wondered why the FHET would halt such popular programs, those were the internal reasons for reviewing them, he said.

“The trust has done a great job of doing programs, getting attendance. That’s the hard work,” Milley said, adding that most cemeteries with similar trusts can only dream of such “fantastic” efforts. But, he added, “Popular doesn’t necessarily mean financially successful. You have to win somewhere.”

Milley also confirmed some internal tension about arts programs being held in a cemetery. The Gazette previously was told of controversy about FHET-sponsored art installations on or near graves.

“We have had quite a number of proprietors [owners of multiple-grave lots] who have had concerns about these programs and whether they are suitable to hold on grounds where they interred families,” Milley said. “The program to them is sometimes unsuitable.”

“It is a balance,” Milley said. “The cemetery takes that balance extremely seriously. We need to err on the side of lot owners and proprietors.”

Forest Hills Cemetery is a garden cemetery, renowned for beautiful landscaping, winding paths, major sculptures and graves of world-famous figures. But many visitors don’t realize that the not-for-profit cemetery is still an active burial ground.

Milley described similar misconceptions about the arts programs. While the public debate has viewed the FHET largely as an independent arts organization, it actually exists to help preserve the cemetery, which in turn exists to preserve forever the memories of those buried there, Milley said. The cemetery, he noted, is not an arts venue per se.

“What the cemetery provides the community is its natural beauty and its architecture,” he said. “Programs were brought into this institution to see if [they] can provide funding for restoration projects. We’re not having events for events’ sake.”

Milley did not describe the exact circumstances of the FHET’s programming halt last year, when the executive director and staff left. Milley and other cemetery officials declined to comment about the situation at the time, leaving the public unaware of some key facts.

Cemetery staffers—including Milley—serve as the main volunteer labor for many of the FHET events, including the Lantern Festival. And while the FHET’s loss of state arts funding was big news, that was a drop in the bucket compared to the main endowment provided by the cemetery itself. FHET also continues to get free space in the cemetery office.

FHET has yet to hire another executive director. The programs are being managed by a part-time director, Jonathan Clark. Milley said he meets regularly with Clark to go over program proposals. Milley generally outlined an attempt by the cemetery to “change the mindset” of the trust.

“It operates independently,” Milley said of the FHET. But, he added, “To some extent, to some legal extent, we still have some influence and impact on how it’s managed,” due to the cemetery’s status as its “settlor” or founder. “It needs to follow the goals of the cemetery.”

Milley said the FHET has raised some significant funds for cemetery preservation over its 17-year history, but said that it also has a financial “drawdown every year” and only “fairly modest” donations. Going forward, he said, he aims to see FHET programs that either boost the trust’s funding directly, or that create a measurable increase in people choosing to be buried in the cemetery via the programs’ “indirect publicity.”

More events highlight the Chinese-American and African-American cultures—two growing demographics of those interred in Forest Hills—could be among the programming courses, he said.

FHET held an unscientific survey about its programs after suspending them. Milley said that the cemetery already knows that the programs are popular and that the public will not have a role in the current rethinking.

“It’s really an internal thought process,” he said. “It’s a business decision for a private business. We’d be abdicating our responsibility if we let the public decide that. It’s a slippery slope.”

“The events are interesting and we want them to be successful,” Milley said. But, he added, the definition of success must involve drawing visitors into the cemetery’s history and mission, and not merely because “event X just happens to be here.”

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