Meet the New President of North Bennet Street School

Meet the New President of North Bennet Street School

Published on Sunday, November 18, 2018.
North Bennet Street School

North Bennet Street School

North Bennet Street School

Sarah Turner’s house in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is strewn with boxes. After 10 years at Cranbrook Academy of Art – most recently as dean – and fresh off a residency at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, she’s moving on. She’ll become president of the North Bennet Street School in Boston on December 1.

Turner has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Smith College, a certificate in metalsmithing from the OCAC, and an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She lectures widely, and her work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions.

Her new employer, the North Bennet Street School, was founded in 1881; it’s been called “America’s first trade school.” Education at NBSS emphasizes holistic learning that allows graduates to earn a living. In addition to continuing education classes that serve hundreds of students each year, NBSS offers nine full-time programs in skills such as carpentry, jewelry making, violin making and repair, and locksmithing; there are about 150 students in the full-time programs.

Turner will succeed Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, who’s led the school for 12 years. We asked her to put down the packing tape for a few minutes to talk about her new job.

Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner

North Bennet Street School

What first interested you about the job at North Bennet Street School?
I knew of the North Bennet Street School through its legacy, through its reputation. I had a sense that this was a quirky, interesting place of really deep and true quality, and I wanted to find out more. It was time, in my career, to take the next step in educational leadership; I was ready for a substantial next challenge. I wanted to go somewhere that was really particular, that had idiosyncrasies, that really foregrounded making, and that presents an alternative to conventional BA, BFA, and MFA programs.

I was also drawn to the school’s focus on practical skill, and I really appreciated the stress on employment and careers. There’s a strong sense of responsibility to the students in that emphasis; students can create livelihoods. With the cost of education where it is, especially private education, that seems to have a lot of integrity. Through the interview process, many of my instincts were confirmed.

Is it a concern about the cost of education and the importance of employment that made you interested in alternatives to BFAs and MFAs?
I wouldn’t say that was the driving force. I really value education in a lot of forms. I was looking for breadth of educational experience. I just love that there are rarified options that are both very practical, like the North Bennet Street School, and then, maybe more conceptual or avant-garde, if you want to call it that, like Cranbrook. I want a range of educational approaches and educational models to exist.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities or challenges in your new job?
I’m very lucky to be going to the school when I am. There’s immense opportunity, simply by the way that Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez has positioned the school and the board has positioned the school. They have an incredible new facility. They have a really strong staff and faculty. I see that as a very, very strong platform for the next chapter.

The opportunities and challenges, for me, are in attracting new audiences to the school – the student audience, partners, donors we can bring to the table. There are new audiences out there, especially as we see a rise in the value of the handmade, of the well-made, of the artisanal, of the local, of the small-batch; all of these movements, whether that’s in food, in clothing, in objects – these movements are alive and well across our culture right now. And I think there are opportunities to intersect with them and help some new folks see how their interests resonate with what’s being offered at North Bennet. I’d like to raise the profile of the school a little bit, not just in this country, but abroad.

There’s also the subject of technology on the table, and how new approaches to craft and trade education can intersect with technology. And I don’t just mean technology around making. I’m really thinking about the online and the distance-learning space. That will represent a cultural shift, in some ways. We’ll have to see how we can do that in a way that still fits with the school’s mission.

There will be opportunities and challenges I don’t anticipate yet, of course. And I’m someone who shapes my vision, really, by learning the community that I’m a part of and working on behalf of. One of my great pleasures is to see how we will address the issues as a whole community.

In the press release about your appointment, you said your art lies in leadership work. Tell us more.
I like being in a position to really get to know all the moving parts – the people, the programs, the interests, the goals, the finances, the talents, the buildings, the whole picture — and then to take a little distance to think how those parts could be realigned, how they could be activated differently, what needs to get left alone, where common interest lies, where goals lie.

And I know it’s a cliché to say this, but I really do like people, with all of their complexities. Finding ways to advance a team’s talent, individuals’ talents, make room for people’s growth, align interests where maybe people wouldn’t necessarily see common interests – toward the health of a whole institution – that’s just a terrific challenge to me. It’s really gratifying work.

When I think about leadership, I think about the responsibility, the stewardship of a place. Getting to help lead Cranbrook, getting to help lead North Bennet Street School – these are really special and enduring places. That’s just a privilege and a responsibility I take really seriously, to get to work on behalf of something, a whole institution, a piece of history.

North Bennet Street School students

Photo: North Bennet Street School

You’re going to a place where people are focused on piano tuning, jewelry repair, cabinet making or other hands-on skills, which seems like a big shift from the effete, rarified world of Cranbrook. Is that a translation you can make?
In some ways, yeah, North Bennet will be a culture shift, for me, because it’s true, many of the places I’ve worked have been pretty solely focused in the contemporary, with a keen eye on the contemporary art world that sits next to, say, craft and design.

But I really think good ideas, substantial, sophisticated ideas, are everywhere. I don’t think they’re in one approach. And this is, frankly, what I’ve always loved about craft – that the ideas and the objects are inseparable, that objects and materials have ideas embedded in them. And that’s true for historically based objects and trades, like those happening at North Bennet, as much as it’s true for contemporary practices; any art historian is going to tell us that.

Maybe aspiring locksmiths or carpenters or piano tuners aren’t interested in the same ideas as contemporary artists, but I bet they’re attuned to the implications of their work, the reach of their work, the idea of it. And I suspect — and I’ll learn more when I get some more time with North Bennet — that while the students and the faculty are probably framing their work around skill and around practical application, there’s a lot of nuanced learning and thinking going on in all of those workshops. The whole person is being educated; the whole mind is being educated, as well as the hand. There will be some translations, but I think there’s a core thread I’m going to be able to find.

There’s a community-mindedness to the school that’s similar to some of the other places I’ve worked. When you walk into the North Bennet Street School building, when you start talking to the faculty and students and staff, you start to realize that there’s something very considered, very thoughtful, very self-reflective going on here. There’s a commitment to integrity and quality. It’s in the spirit of the place.

I also bring the background of a maker. I bring with me an understanding of what studio-based or workshop-based education is, the kind of time it takes, the skills and initiative it requires, the work ethic of it, balances between thinking and doing, the way that it starts to play out when you’re out of school and you need to apply that learning and those skills in the real world. That background builds my trust with faculty; it builds my trust with students.

What are you most excited about?
The thing that excites me most is becoming a member of the North Bennet community. All of the schools that I’ve been a part of are these really strong, intense, powerful, rare and special places, even if they’re very small, like Cranbrook or North Bennet or OCAC. And maybe because they’re so small, because they’re so intimate, they create these intensities. The rewards are so much beyond the work itself. I’m excited about the practical work that’s going to get done. I’m excited about the goals we’re going to meet, the progress we’re going to make. But I think I’m most excited about the community that develops from that shoulder-to-shoulder working in a place like North Bennet, that builds on something bigger than itself, that builds on its history, that looks to its future. It’s really an honor.