Bill Strickland, a recipient of the coveted MacArthur Foundation’s genius award, whirled through Scranton last week to speak on “The Art of Leadership” for the Schemel Forum at the University of Scranton. His topic was making the impossible possible, which is also the name of the book he wrote about his life and work, published in 2012.
Bill grew up in Pittsburgh in a working class neighborhood that through the years descended into the most crime-ridden section of the city. He still lives there and intends to for the rest of his life. Meantime, he continues, through a uniquely successful approach to the training of disadvantaged youth who have given up, to change their lives. His aim is to bring hope and success to those who have given up on both; in short, to make the impossible not only possible but probable.
Bill himself was not a great success in high school — until the day he walked by the classroom of a ceramics teacher who invited him in. Bill took one look at the potters’ wheel and came to life. He leapt into learning ceramics almost obsessively. He had found himself. The teacher saw his passion and his ability and gave him permission to use the wheel after hours, teaching, coaching and encouraging him all the while. He insisted that Bill go to college. Bill was accepted conditionally at the University of Pittsburgh. Forty years later he received an honorary degree and gave the commencement speech there.
The art of Bill’s leadership is, among other things, about art. He is committed to giving to the disadvantaged a taste of beauty; more accurately, an immersion in beauty. The center itself, The Bidwell Training Center — is beauty incarnate. It was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright; it is adorned with furniture designed by a Japanese craftsman influenced by the renowned George Nakashima of Bucks County; the walls and open spaces are filled with objects of art and craft, and the training programs begin with photography and ceramics.
While Bill is unwavering in this commitment to art immersion, he is open to other training areas and has developed a number of them as he has recognized the need and been inspired by funders with particular interests.
For example he opened a culinary arts program at the behest of the Heinz Company as they gave him an ample grant to support it. At the suggestion and with the support of Dizzy Gillespie, Mr. Strickland had a state of the art recording studio built in his center. To date it has produced five Grammy winning recordings and several more have been nominated for them.
Some years ago, when I served as cultural adviser to Gov. Robert P. Casey, I took a group of cultural officers from embassies in Washington on a cultural tour of Pennsylvania and we had lunch at the center.
Though we visited major cultural organizations and institutions across the commonwealth and were treated to elegant dinners and receptions by their CEOs and board members, the gourmet luncheon at Bidwell was the most surprising and memorable part of their journey.
Having created what appears to be an unbeatable template, replication is high on Mr. Strickland’s agenda these days. There are five cities in the U.S. that have replicated the program under the guidance of Mr. Strickland and his staff. Several more are under discussion. He aims to have a 100 in place in the U.S. by the end of this decade and 100 abroad in the next. Support from corporations and foundations has been forthcoming. Their leaders become colleagues of Mr. Strickland — not just donors.
It is hard to pin down just what Mr. Strickland’s magic is. I believe that his integration of the arts into the program, based on his commitment to bringing pride and dignity into the lives of the trainees is important. I believe that his open mind to the ideas of others and the needs of the time is another. But as a wise art historian once answered to a student’s question about Picasso’s particular brilliance, “You can’t pin him down; he’s not a dead butterfly.”
That is certainly true of Mr. Strickland. But even though we do not dare to pin him down, we can use some of his “magic” in our region — and I know for certain that he would be open to it.
Publication Date: February 16, 2014