WELLFLEET — Even before this town’s Preservation Hall officially opened its carved and painted doors in 2011, its mission was to be, above all, a welcoming place. And when its founders — this writer included — met Janet Lesniak we knew she was the person to make it just that.
“She was one of the warmest, most nurturing people I’d ever met,” says Marla Rice, who in 2006 with Anne Suggs and me started working on what would become a movement to create the hall as a community gathering place.
Main Street had nearly lost the building, a former Catholic church, to neglect. And the place was slated to become a drive-through bank at one point in the town’s search for a viable taker.
“We had watched the post office go, and the drugstore, and the Newsdealer,” says Rice. But to make a better vision work, she says, “We needed someone who could believe in that — not just someone ready to build a music venue or a theater space or an arts center.”
“The challenge of it,” as Lesniak remembers the offer to become Wellfleet Preservation Hall’s first executive director in 2011, was “Let’s grow this thing and see what happens.”
What has happened is a lot: concerts and art exhibitions, readings and screenings, classes and parties — hundreds of events a year. “I’ve realized I enjoy birthing things,” Lesniak says.
Now, after 11½ years as the hall’s public face, she says she is ready to retire.
Looking back, Lesniak realizes it took some bravery to take on a nascent institution with an as-yet-unformed trajectory, one bound to be dependent on the community’s imagination and good will to blossom into something enduring.
“She didn’t have exactly the nonprofit leadership experience we might have been looking for,” says Rice, “But she had been a social worker and then she had been a part of a family business. She had a deep understanding of the importance of a sense of place.”
What Lesniak remembers was that “so much love and attention and money had gone into making this beautiful building into a work of art and now was the time to figure out what to do inside it.”
The job rooted Lesniak here in a way she had resisted for a few years before she took it on. Her family’s business was the Big Sur River Inn in California. In 2008, she and husband Paul Lesniak felt it might be time to live closer to their grown children on this side of the continent.
They chose to settle in Wellfleet, where Paul had summered since childhood. But for Janet, it was not an easy decision. She found herself flying back and forth between the inn and Wellfleet until her 98-year-old stepfather told her to cut it out. “You’ve got to pick a side,” he told her. So, she did.
Wellfleet offered something she and Paul had been looking for, a community small enough to be intimate, broad enough to be interesting, beautiful enough to calm the pangs of missing Big Sur, and engaged enough to make their natural talents relevant.
“When we first moved into our house, we kept getting invitations from Nauset Newcomers for activities that sounded fun,” Lesniak remembers, until it dawned on her, “I didn’t want to be a ‘newcomer’ — at least not forever.”
Lesniak found herself offering advice to Gigi Ledkovsky, who was preparing to coordinate weddings at the hall. “We did lots of weddings at the inn,” says Lesniak. But it was at a meeting with the hall’s programming committee that she felt the pull of the place. “I saw all this beautiful creativity, and I thought, maybe I could be the person to harness some of that,” she remembers.
“There’s nothing quite like the beginning of something,” says Vanessa Downing, Preservation Hall’s managing director, who also joined the staff in that first year. For eight years, Lesniak and Downing shared an office no bigger than a walk-in closet. Together they built the anatomy of the venue from bookkeeping to bookings. “But,” Downing adds, “there was also magic in it. We’d be at an event we’d put together, like the sold-out first film festival with all the wires taped to the floor, and it would feel kind of magical. We’d say, ‘Wow! We’re onto something. Isn’t this great?’
“People would come in with things they wanted to do,” Downing remembers. “And Janet, naturally warm and friendly, would make them feel not only comfortable but heard.”
Emily Kelly-Joseph, Preservation Hall’s special projects coordinator, agrees. She remembers watching Lesniak look at artwork brought in by the young granddaughter of a volunteer. She studied the works with interest. “She makes time for people in a genuine way,” says Kelly-Joseph.
Preservation Hall has just made an offer to a prospective new executive director, Kathy Fletcher, who moved to Wellfleet in 2019 with her husband, David Simpson. Fletcher has worked for the last three years as executive director of Silkroad, a Boston-based nonprofit founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bring together musicians and musical traditions from all over the world. Previously, she was the national director for Turnaround Arts from 2011 to 2019 in Washington, D.C., which started as a performing arts program created by Michelle Obama.
Lesniak is pleased about the prospect of Fletcher joining the hall. “I’m really excited to see what happens,” she says. She likes the fact that Fletcher’s creative connections extend beyond Wellfleet. She knows Fletcher. “When she says she’s going to do something,” Lesniak adds, “it happens.”
Lesniak is eager to resume her own creative pursuits that were sidelined by a demanding job. She is an encaustic artist, a yoga enthusiast, and, she says, “I bought a map of the United States yesterday.” She and her husband have a camper. “We plan to head south, then take a right, and see what happens.”
Meanwhile, her personal hopes in the short run are simple. First, she admits, “I just want to know I can have coffee in the morning without checking the time every 10 seconds.” And second, she’s looking forward to attending an event at the hall without having to worry if the projector is going to work — or at least, to knowing that “I’m not going to be the one to have to fix it!”
Bring Dancing Shoes
The event: A Toast to Janet
The time: Friday, Nov. 11, 6 to 8 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: $100, $150, and $200 to launch the Lesniak Community Fund
The event: More dancing, with the Rip It Ups
The time: Saturday, Nov. 12, 7 to 10 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: Free