To replace founding director Peter J. Palermo, McKendree University conducted a nationwide search last fall to find the best person to oversee The Hettenhausen Center for the Arts. But the best candidate was right there on campus all along.
Liz Crabtree, who had worked with Palermo and was the box office manager, took over as the executive director in February.
“It was very humbling. Everyone was very supportive, and I am so thankful,” she said.
She was endorsed by none other than the man who had exceeded the college’s expectations during his 12 years there, opening the new facility in 2006 and making it into a world-class center for classical music, jazz, theater, dance and lectures.
“She’s a dynamo!” Palermo said.
He is now the executive director of The Sheldon Foundation, overseeing the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries in St. Louis.
“Liz’s natural enthusiasm and her passion for the arts won me over the moment I met her. She became a real partner to me,” he said. “Together, we were able to make the Hett the premier arts destination in Southern Illinois. I miss working with her every day, but I’m really happy to still have her as a colleague in the field.”
The 488-seat auditorium known as “The Hett” is named for Russel E. and Fern M. Hettenhausen of Belleville. Fern, a pianist, memorialized her late husband, who was passionate about the arts, with a lead gift of $6 million to jump-start the effort to construct an arts center on McKendree’s campus.
Crabtree moved here six years ago due to her husband’s assignment to Scott Air Force Base.
Originally from the Washington, D.C./Maryland area, she has lived in other states and abroad in England and Germany.
Now divorced, she and her two daughters, Olivia, 15, and Isabel, 16, live in O’Fallon. The girls attend O’Fallon Township High School. Her son, Adrian, 22, is a graduate of the University of Illinois and lives and works in St. Louis.
“This is a great place to raise a family,” Liz Crabtree said. “I do like the area a lot.”
Crabtree took to heart the phrase, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” She immediately became active in the O’Fallon Garden Club.
Then, she applied for a part-time box office job at The Hett in 2014. She sent a handwritten thank-you note to Palermo after interviewing. She got the job. He told her the personal correspondence sealed the deal.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. My kids were settled, I decided I was ready for a part-time job,” Crabtree said.
She said working with Palermo was such a positive experience she moved up to become box office manager.
Crabtree took note of the patron loyalty. They have a feel for what appeals to the audience. About 80 percent of the patrons are over the age of 60. Yet they like to program for all ages to present a mix of artists.
“We have patrons come from Indiana, Chicago and St. Louis. It all depends on the artist,” she said. “A lot of our patrons are from Belleville, Lebanon, O’Fallon, Edwardsville.”
Crabtree was introduced to the arts at an early age and remains a huge fan. She also grew up with brothers and said that experience taught her a lot. She majored in finance in college, another skill put to good use. Another skill: Hospitality.
“That’s the best part of the job. I’m happy to see people come out to have a good time. They are out for an evening. They are here because they want to be, and they want to enjoy it,” she said.
Becoming an arts administrator seemed like second nature.
“This is such a beautiful building,” she said. “This is a special place. We want to create an experience for the patrons.”
In addition to the fine arts, Crabtree programs a distinguished speaker series and a film series, although she has assistance from committees.
“We have 275 here. It’s more than just McKendree events. We have things for the community. This is a great way to share the arts — the arts bring people together,” she said.
To better understand arts management, she is a student of the masters. Crabtree likes to continually educate herself and attends arts conferences for better understanding. She considers the Kennedy Center to be very helpful.
“The arts are a very collaborative experience,” she said. “It’s great when people are open to sharing their expertise and guidance.”
Crabtree credits Palermo with teaching her so much, and that he established such a great reputation early on.
“Peter raised the bar. He cared about presenting the best artists, and everyone came together, working on achieving those goals,” she said.
Crabtree strives to give each patron outstanding customer service.
“So many things go into putting on a show,” she said. “We all hope it all comes together in the end.”
Her days — and nights — may be longer now, but Crabtree is driven by inspiration and creativity.
“In this age of computers, the arts keep the story of humanity going between us,” she said. “We share this. Nothing else is like it.”
Meet Liz Crabtree
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: “Every day is a new day.”
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: “Michael Kaiser, an American arts administrator who served as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and led the nation in arts management training.”
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: “Alfred Hitchcock — his cinematography was innovative and he disrupted the industry.”
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: “The Collaborative Way: A Story about Engaging the Mind and Spirit of a Company,” by Lloyd and Jason Fickett. I highly recommend it.”
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: “I love to listen to records and watch old movies.”
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?”
A: Empty of icons, but I keep relevant programs running for quick use.”
Q: What did you want to do career-wise when you were growing up?
A: “For me, the stage has always had a certain allure. I love when a group of people share and feel something together. As the director of the Hett, I am amplifying creative expression.”
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A:” I turn strangers into friends.”
Q: What irritates you most?
A: “The notion that online streaming would replace live performances.”
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: “I listen to all types of music, but seem to fall back on classic rock — Led Zeppelin, Styx, The Who.”
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: “Doing different tasks each day that center on people. It’s constantly changing and always interesting.”
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: “Forming community gardens all over the nation.”
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: “Somebody who likes to laugh.”
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: “A satellite telephone.”