Reflections on an unusual assignment
Dr. Irene Burgess
Interim Founding Executive Director
Andalusia Institute, Georgia College & State University, Milledgeville, GA
Registry Member since 2019
I was selected in January of 2020 through December of 2022 to become the Interim Executive Director, and Founding Director, of the Andalusia Institute, a public arts and humanities institute at Georgia College dedicated to the legacy of Flannery O’Connor, major mid-twentieth century writer, resident of Milledgeville, and alumna of the College. Although since O’Connor’s death in the 1960’s the College had done some work to establish their part in her legacy, including developing her home to use as a house museum and curating one of the largest collections of O’Connor manuscripts and memorabilia in their Special Collections, nonetheless, a need was felt for an entity at the College that would have the O’Connor legacy at its core and provide a means to national prominence for the College and its role in twentieth century American Literature.
When I interviewed and arrived, it was clear that there were many different constituencies over the years who had ideas about what such an Institute should look like and what its mission should be. The College had a failed search for someone to start such a place, probably because there were so many pieces of what they were hoping for, including an artist residency, focused development activity, and scholarly support. They turned to The Registry in the hopes of finding a senior leader who would be able to meet many of their needs with a mature and collaborative outlook even if they weren’t necessarily my direct skills or talents.
I had taken the position because I have a naturally entrepreneurial bent and had enjoyed reading O’Connor in the past (although as an English Literature scholar, my field is 16th English Literature—not quite the tales of farmers, evangelists, and salesmen of the deep South that O’Connor wrote). Also, I thought it would be enjoyable to sift through all the ideas and see what we could make into a coherent whole that served most people’s vision of what this should become. And, frankly, this could be an awfully stressful position for someone who needed this as a career stepping-stone; it seemed well-suited for a Registry member who could act as a type of “operating consultant.”
I plunged in with zest in the first two months of my assignment, getting to know the players, seeing what had been suggested in the past, meeting potential development partners as well as some of the more influential constituencies. In addition, of course, I was examining branding issues, digital media strategies, and samples of other author institutes tied to higher education.
Then, two months in, the pandemic forced us all to stay home. I considered whether it was in the College’s best interest to continue in my role, but the pandemic enabled the growth of the Institute in ways we hadn’t conceived. I contacted the major O’Connor scholar at the school, Dr. Bruce Gentry. I had attended a local O’Connor reading group he had conducted a week before the shut-down and asked him if he’d be willing to conduct it on-line if I took care of all the details and he just showed up to be brilliant and funny. He was skeptical, saying we “wouldn’t have more than 10 people sign up.” We had over 60 people sign up for the first Zoom discussion in April of 2020, and then never looked back.
The eventual 600 people on this mailing list who had registered for different sessions and the over 400 people on our Institute webpage became the foundation for a great deal of growth. We had developed a robust schedule of virtual and live events which led to a variety of other related projects and events: an Oral History project, a program reaching out to local students in their curriculum about O’Connor and writing, and an NEH Summer Institute for 2023. These last three projects brought in over $700,000 of grant funding in 2022 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal Department of Education.
This has been an immensely satisfactory assignment despite all the indicators that it might too much to take on. I’d urge all my fellow members to embrace similarly any unusual assignment that comes their way.