Balancing Act: Geri Unger Hired to Lead the Morgan Forward

Geri Unger is not an artist, and doesn’t plan to become one. In that sense she is not the kind of person you’d expect to find at the helm of an organization in the media-specific realm occupied by the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory. Most of the people running places like that came to the job through the art form. Nonetheless, with unanimous support of a search committee that took applications from around the country and worked for six months, Unger was hired to succeed Leonard Young, who served as interim executive director since 2017. She started in August.

“We interviewed people who are artists,” says board president Maggie Denk-Leigh. “But we are at a moment where we are trying to push a relatively young organization to a more mature level, and that comes with establishing a different position, understanding strategic planning, understanding the scope of fundraising, support for programming, and also being able to balance our mission with our ambition. She had the ability to see where we are and understand the potential.”

And in those ways, Unger is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find in that role. She is deeply experienced in the leadership of nonprofit organizations, including fundraising, personnel management, and the combination of vision and analysis that’s built into the strategic planning process, which she has also been through. She has held jobs around the country and around the world, including recently as executive director of the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, DC, and just before that as director of Education and Research at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. She’s easy to talk to. She has two adult children.

The Morgan’s artistic vision remains in the hands of founder and artistic director Tom Balbo. That vision includes teaching about papermaking and book arts at a professional level, as well as to the community. For the Morgan’s first ten years, the emphasis was on the professional side, with expert teaching artists coming from around the country for workshops. Both professional and community-level programming got a boost in May, when the Morgan landed its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The $20,000 grant supports creation of new work by Claudio Orso-Giacone and Hong Hong.

The big-picture challenges Unger will face have to do with balancing revenue with artistic vision, and making it all into sustainable reality, through facilities management, connections to the community, and fundraising. It’s a moment of potential as big as its mid-town campus, which includes a 15,000-square-foot industrial building on East 47th Street, a kozo garden and parking on a lot that stretches to East 45th, and two adjacent houses, purchased in April. The Morgan owns all those properties outright. It is reputedly the largest art center devoted to papermaking in the United States.

The adaptively re-used property embodies much of the potential, the vision of sustainability, and also the challenge. The big building has lots of room for programming, including not only its papermaking studio (where Michaelle Marschall and others are in steady production mode, making paper on contract in addition to standard sales inventory and in workshops), but also a letterpress studio, a bookbinding studio, and a gallery. It also has a big, leaky roof.

The long-vacant, often-vandalized houses next door have been a challenge for years, and so when the opportunity arose to buy them, the Morgan did, seeing potential for renovation as artist residences. They’re also in that advanced state of decay that might cost more to remedy than it would to demolish them and start anew.

And that kozo garden—a grove of mulberry trees whose bark is used for its fiber in traditional Asian papermaking—is a model of sustainability, partly because it represents the adaptive re-use of an urban lot, and partly because it saves both the expense and the environmental impact of having to import the same fiber from Asia. It seems to have potential for connection with school curriculum, from life sciences to history, to environmentalism. This may be known nationally in the niche community of papermakers, but probably not much beyond that, and certainly not much in Cleveland.

Unger says she recently got a call from a woman in Florida who wanted to come for the November kozo harvest and bring students to make their own paper. “There are a lot of people interested in using fiber and natural products, and a lot of interest in how we teach skills in the STEM/STEAM curriculum. Those students won’t all become papermakers, but it will touch something off in their brains. Tom has built this amazing facility with such vision and potential to serve not only the art community, but also the broader community as a safe space for people to come and explore.”

“She is inheriting parts of a lot of things,” Denk-Leigh says. “She is juggling a lot. The Morgan is not an easy organization.”

Unger’s first order of business has been to get to know the organization: the eight-person, full-time staff, the way checks are written, and what she calls the “care and feeding” of the 14-member board of directors. She’s also diving into the $400,000-ish budget for next year. As CAN went to press, she was in the final phase of selecting a strategic planning consultant for a process to begin early in the year. And she has been out in the studio, “looking over people’s shoulders” to learn about paper and printing.

Unger’s approach to dealing with the Morgan’s big leaky roof is not simply to repair or replace it, but to combine that work with the addition of solar panels. Even in Cleveland, a 15,000-square-foot flat roof has significant potential to generate electricity—perhaps enough even to export to the power grid. That vision might make an otherwise boring and utilitarian new roof more worthy of funding.

She has had several architects look at both the main building and the adjacent houses, and Bill Doty—who was architect of record for the sustainably renovated Arts in the Bank Building (former home of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition and like-minded nonprofits) at Fulton and Lorain in Ohio City has risen to the top.

So the next order of business in that project is to work with development coordinator Tasmin Andres to raise money to assess the building and create designs. Unger hopes the county and the city could be interested because the project brings urban land back into productive use, and that the prospect of solar energy might make it interesting to foundations as well.

The architect will also evaluate and make recommendations for the two houses south of the main building. Balbo also has a vision of a sheltered, three-season pavilion in the garden, that would become a focal point for the kozo harvest and processing.

Strategic planning should help sort out priorities for day-to-day operations, as well as the demands of the facilities. It’s a question of balance. Unger hopes to have a plan done in the first half of 2020.

“One thing at a time,” she says. “I am always optimistic.”

Michael Gill served on the Morgan Conservatory’s executive director search committee and was among those unanimous votes.