Keith Marks looks to build on Next Stage Arts Project's legacy

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PUTNEY — Surrounded by white poster boards filled with multi-colored Post-It notes from brainstorming sessions with his staff, the new executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, Keith Marks, said moving from Florida to Vermont was an easy sell to his family.

That doesn't mean it was an easy move. With an 8-year-old son, Tahgel, 4-year-old daughter, Silan - both mid-year in school, a successful business co-owned with his wife Tehila, Tehila's Pilates and Massage, and involvement in multiple non-profit organizations, it meant the family would be leaving behind a lot. In the short course of one very long weekend he, his wife, and the two children unanimously agreed to make the move, taking a leap of faith without regrets.

So far, it's been a natural transition for the family.

"Being here," Marks said, "I feel is an incredible opportunity. I feel it is something magical."

Marks was introduced to the area after befriending Sharon Fantl, associate director at Redfern Arts Center of Keene, N.H. while they were attending the National Arts Strategies Executive Program in Arts and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently invited to visit Fantl in New England, Marks, a nature-loving health enthusiast, found he appreciated the area's juxtaposition of nature, history, and arts and culture, all things close to his heart. He had indicated to Fantl he was seeking to move; in September, she told him about the opening at Next Stage Arts Project.

Marks took on his new role at Next Stage on February 3. He succeeds Maria Basescu, who stepped down last summer to become managing director of Yellow Barn, and Billy Straus, who served as Next Stage's interim director.

"I wake up excited about coming to work," Marks said. "This is an amazing staff that has my back to work with," he added, referring to full-time staffer JaJa Laughlain and co-founder Barry Stockwell.

Marks is no stranger to the snowy winters that come with the territory. He was born in upstate New York, and has fond memories of making snow forts until his family moved to Florida when he was 10 years old. He feels that that early uprooting was a pivotal point in his life, providing him with a different perspective that comes from a new location, thus creating a path of growth and attributing to his early days of wanderlust.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in communications with a focus on journalism at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, he saw his future working in a record company, or another music-centric career. But first, he set out to see the world.

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Traveling from Europe to Asia, Ireland to Tibet, Marks embraced a variety of endeavors along the way. He obtained a UK work visa and worked as a bartender in London and a movie usher in Ireland's Kulwinder Edinburgh Filmhouse. He earned a Master's degree in education from Tel Aviv University, teaching English as a second education in Israel. He lived in India for four years, taught English in South Korea; and became a massage therapist, while paying attention to good health and practicing meditation and yoga before resettling in Jacksonville and starting a family.

Marks brings with him an impressive background founding many arts and cultural programs with a focus on community, receiving the 2019 Arts Innovator Award from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville for his work. Those programs include AVANT, a music non-profit supporting "curious music for curious minds" which brought new music to Jacksonville that would not have made it otherwise.

Marks started the Jacksonville Memorial Light Festival, initially created to honor the military, considering its proximity to several military bases, expanding it to dedicate to loved ones lost after listening to people's concerns of a need for a place to celebrate more than veterans. He founded Party, Benefit & Jam, or PB&J, a fundraising campaign to raise awareness for causes in town that need publicity. He co-created the No Meat March, getting more than 400 people to pledge to go meatless for a month, he was Marketing and Community Outreach Director of Hemming Park, and Sub-Committee Chair of Artist Development and Outreach for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

Marks doesn't plan to make huge changes at Next Stage Arts Project. "I want to build on the legacy of the last 10 years of the organization. I see myself as the caretaker of the organization, learning what the community wants it to be," he said. "I want to expand programming to be more relevant for younger audiences. My vision is to build on the relevancy and impact that Next Stage has had on the community."

Marks sees a great deal of potential in Next Stage Arts Project. The building, once the United Church of Putney, underwent a $1.7 million renovation, adding a commercial kitchen, art gallery, and theater with 94 permanent seats and room for 100 more. It was envisioned not only as a performing arts center, but as a place where families can come together in what was historically a community congregational space.

"My role here is to listen and learn the majority of the first year," Marks said. " I'm still learning, reading [Basescu's] reports, seeing what has worked and what hasn't. She is becoming not only a resource but a friend."

Marks said he finds the biggest challenge is keeping track of all the many threads within the organization and its relationship within the community.

"I want personal growth, I see this as a new chapter in my life," he said. "I'm looking forward to rising to the occasion to take this organization into the next decade."

To contact Marks, email keith@nextstagearts.org.

Freelance writer Cicely M. Eastman is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes and the Brattleboro Reformer's Ovation arts and entertainment section.


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