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Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Bailey Moon '11 and Head of School Antonio Viva talk about Walnut Hill's History and its Upcoming Transitions

August 9, 2021

Bailey Moon ’11 (L) and Antonio Viva (R)

 

BAILEY MOON: I really just want to start from the beginning and ask: When this opportunity as Head of School first came about 10 years ago, why were you interested in taking it on, and what was your first impression of Walnut Hill?

ANTONIO VIVA: It’s a great question, Bailey. I was introduced to Walnut Hill in 1997 when I was a young public school theater teacher and I got sent out here. I’ll never forget—it was in the spring for a weekend professional development opportunity, and I showed up on this campus and was just completely blown away by the fact that a school existed where kids got to do art and that the whole mission of the school was an artistic one. I will never forget the impression the place left on me back in 1997, and I kind of always had been paying attention to Walnut Hill after that. When the opportunity opened up in 2009 to consider applying to be Head of School, I felt like I was at the right point in my career; it sounded like the school was looking for someone with my experience and background, and so I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I never could have imagined at the time that it would play out that I would be sitting here almost 11 years later, but I think partly what spoke to me was the idea that a school could have at the core of its mission a focus on the arts and arts education and arts training. I think when I arrived to interview, I was struck by the fact that there was a school filled with young artists that I always found were just a small minority of kids at most other schools, and here’s a whole school filled with these creative, passionate young people. I think the energy was intoxicating and the passion was clear and evident, and I essentially fell in love with the place all over again. When I got the phone call from Betsy McClendon the week before Thanksgiving of 2009 that I was being made the offer, I was a little overwhelmed by it, to be honest with you. I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.” And I think back to that younger version of myself and at 37 to come in as a Head of School, I had my work cut out for me because I had never been a Head of School before. And so I went in with a lot of enthusiasm and hope for the future, and it’s hard to believe that over a decade has gone by already.

BM: When you first started, what were some initial roadblocks or challenges that came about, and how have you seen some of those things evolve? Where are elements of evolution still happening with those bigger challenges for the institution?

AV: That’s another great question. The first, probably most significant hurdle I had to overcome was that our School had gone through a really challenging period in history. I mean, you remember—there were four years with four Heads of School. I kept trying to figure out how to help Walnut Hill with its ongoing healing process, and to move out of the immediacy of that tumultuous transitional time, and to step into getting to know the place. I remember my first year, too, was spent just trying to learn and understand what Walnut Hill was about, to make and establish important relationships, to be actively involved in the school community, and to think about how we were coming out of that time with optimism for the future. I remember one of the first things I had to do in my second year was to start off on a new strategic plan, and that laid the groundwork for adding to our facilities and expanding our programs—I mean, we wouldn’t have Writing, Film & Media Arts if we didn’t have that, right? We wouldn’t have the buildings we have on campus. We wouldn’t have set forward a goal to begin our DEI work if we hadn’t had that roadmap. And so I think in some ways, looking back at the Walnut Hill from 2010 to the Walnut Hill of 2021, I feel really good about the fact that the campus has changed, that the resources and the programs have evolved and changed. I’m really excited about the fact that I think the past decade has helped us establish a really solid foundation, and I think that foundation will build into the future. So, what does that mean? I think it means continuing to think about, for example, how do we best train a young artist in 2021? I mean, I would argue it’s even different from when you were here, right? The skills young artists need, the vocabulary, the experiences, the training—some of that’s the same, but some of that, I think, has changed, and the world that artists find themselves in now is vastly different from the one we were in 11 or 12 years ago.

BM: One hundred percent. So, obviously everyone has faced this past year in different ways, with all the challenges that it has brought forward. I was so heartened to see what you guys are doing with the outdoor theater space, and these little bits of hope that tomorrow and the next day—it’ll all just keep getting better. If you had to summarize the past year and a half, and this pandemic and how the School had to pivot across faculty experience and student experience, how would you wrap that up in a nutshell, so to speak? What are some key learnings that you all have taken from this unexpected turn? You know, my mom is a teacher, so she’s getting used to the virtual learning, etcetera. But then I’m like, “How do you do your art form from home?” What are some things that you guys learned, and what are some elements from this year that you’ll take forward, or hope that will be integrated in different ways?

AV: I remember the first email I sent to the Board of Trustees that had the word “coronavirus” in it was in January of 2020, and I remember sending the email right before the January Board meeting saying, “We should spend some time talking about the fact that there’s this thing happening in another part of the world.” I think what many of us here in the United States realized was that we had this very provincial view that this wasn’t going to affect us. So when it did, it affected us in such a big and significant way that it challenged at the core everything that we know about Walnut Hill. The thing about the School that’s special is, first of all, the day-to-day experience that builds community here, right? It’s walking across campus, it’s sitting at Assembly, it’s having a meal with someone in the Dining Hall, it’s hanging out on Eliot porch . . . it’s those things that make this experience unique. Because you’re in this community of artists and creative people, and when that got turned off in March, it ended up moving into this virtual space. And I think that over the course of the year, one of the things that we learned was that we had to really rely on technology in ways we never would have before. In talking with faculty, some of what I’ve been so amazed by is how quickly they went from zero to 100 in making the shift. They implemented new teaching strategies, they looked at new ways to teach: What does training a musician mean in a virtual environment? How do you teach an acting class? How do you teach a math class virtually? I think we’ve done an incredible job of building on those technological skills and tools over the year, and I hope some of it stays. Like, maybe we could live in a world where we don’t rely on paper as much anymore. Maybe we could live in a world where regardless of whether our families are here from Natick or on the other side of the world, we can use technology to keep them connected to the community, right? Maybe we can imagine where you don’t have to just come to campus to see a performance, but many of our performances can be streamed so that the world and the community at large can experience them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion has been at the forefront of our work this year, and I think it’s presenting a unique opportunity to ask ourselves: What does it mean to train young artists today? What conversations we need to be having? How do our School and the systems that we have in place need to evolve? And so one of the things that’s come out of this is a move toward more of a restorative justice model, and a restorative impulse. I think that’s a good thing for schools like ours. I guess the way I would summarize this difficult period is that it feels like five years of work wrapped up into 14 months. Teachers, administrators, the Board, students, families—everyone at Walnut Hill had to learn to be flexible and to adapt. And I guess my hope would be that we don’t rush so quickly back to everything being normal again, because there are certain things about the normal that I don’t think we should rush back to, and I hope what we do over the course of the next few months is spend some time looking at the things, to your point, that we want to keep. Like, how do we keep our international families feeling connected, and how can we use technology to do that? What ways can we continue to expand the program, and how do we offer things to students that allow us to celebrate process as much as we celebrate product? These are the things that I hope come out of all of this. I also would say that I’m really eager to get back to the ability for community to live and breathe on campus, because I think that’s been probably the most challenging thing: not being able to see and connect with people on a day-to-day basis. And as nice as it is to see someone on Zoom, it’s not the same as having you here in my office and having a conversation.

BM: I want to circle back to DEI because I know it’s an initiative that has been in development for many years and in some ways came to a head this year with everything that’s gone on globally. What are some of the highlights of the work that’s been done in that space, and what are some of the things that might be in development now for the future?

AV: I think some of the most important work that’s had to happen this year has been at the Board level, Bailey. Our school is governed by a Board of Trustees, 28 to 30 people who volunteer their time, resources, and energy to make sure that the School maintains a trajectory. As I like to say, boards have a responsibility to ensure intergenerational equity. The decisions that boards make today are really the decisions that impact the School 10 or 15 years from now. A key result of our Board’s work was the establishment of a standing diversity and equity committee—not a task force, but a committee, like Finance, Investment, and Executive, that stands and does the diversity work on behalf of the institution and the Board. The Board also took a look at its bylaws and thought about implementing term limits, which was successfully voted in this year, as a way to make sure that we don’t exacerbate or continue on systemic practices that don’t allow for diverse voices in seats to be at the table of leadership. I think the other area of development that happened at the Board level this year was a real understanding that the Board has to do some of its own diversity work. So we’re working with the Glasgow Group and with Rodney Glasgow, giving the Board time to reflect on its own diversity work so that when it comes time to make decisions, they’re doing that from an informed lens. So those, I think, are some of the big initiatives at the Board level, and as I like to say to folks, work has to happen in order for there to be a path so that boards that are here 10 years from now will recognize that this is important. 

On a school level, there’s been a lot of work done to maintain and continue the support and resources on campus: expanding the way we do affinity group work, thinking about the training we do with Seeking Equity Education and Diversity (SEED), which came out of Wellesley College—making sure there is ongoing required training of individuals, everyone from our Business Office to our Admission Office to our Development Office to our staff. The other area that we focused on this year was creating a restorative process for the community to process what we heard and learned last summer, for the community to have a conversation internally with students, faculty, and staff. We ran several forums that allowed us to do a lot of listening and to hear people speak their individual truths. At the same time, we are trying to move from a more traditional way of looking at things like discipline to a restorative model, where we understand that the restorative impulse is something that schools like ours should be building in, that we’re not focused on looking at things that are punitive, per se, but trying to recognize that when working with young people, there’s an opportunity for learning to occur on both sides. The most important change that we’ve made is to begin the process of moving toward a culture of restoration campus-wide. This included a three-day training for all department heads, directors, and school administrators at the end of the school year, with the goal being that we will further implement practices and policies that are grounded in a restorative impulse school-wide.

In addition to all that, the Diversity Committee at the school level provided two really important pieces that are leading us into next year. The first was to identify a tool that we can use to do a school-wide diversity climate assessment. We’re going to work with the National Association of Independent Schools’ inclusivity tool—it’s called Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism. What that tool is going to let us do is identify what progress we’ve been making around DEI goals; determine what success existing programs in DEI have; assess what the current level of inclusivity is as perceived by multiple constituencies; identify areas of need such as curriculum, infrastructure, governance, etc.; and engage in a process that provides multiple years to see where we are now versus where we are three years from now. The second thing that the Diversity Committee did was enable us to implement a bias incident reporting system. So when somebody in the community experiences bias or microaggressions or some sort of charged experience, there’s a vehicle for how people can share what that experience was, as well as a process for follow-up.

I think the other two things that we’re really excited about are implementing an artist-in-residence fellowship geared toward BIPOC artists, and expanding our Guest Artist Series next year to include more diverse voices.

BM: Pivoting back a little bit toward your experience, what ultimately led you to step down as Head of School? And if you can, give us some insight into what is coming next for you.

AV: I guess what I would say, Bailey, is that there’s never a good time to leave as Head of School. I’m not sure there is a right time. But as I reflected on the past year and thought about where we were, what I realized was that last year and this year have put everything on hold for us, and I would say that next year is going to be a bit of a transition year for us. So from a timing perspective, I’m really confident that by the end of next year, Walnut Hill, like a lot of schools, will find ourselves coming out of this period in history and hopefully getting ready to embrace a new renaissance or a new energetic push toward something better, I think that timing could be really ideal for a new Head of School to come in here. Unlike when I arrived, when we were struggling to deal with leadership transitions, I’d like to believe that I could leave at a moment where the School’s really ready to welcome the possibility of what comes next. On a personal level, to be quite honest with you, my kids are going into a new stage in their lives. You probably remember that Alessandro was little when you were here.

BM: Yeah. Small man.

AV: Yeah. You know, with one kid in college and another kid starting high school, I just realized that I want time with my family, and to be Head of School at Walnut Hill, sometimes the Walnut Hill family takes priority, you know? It often has. I travel a lot, I’m away a lot, I have a lot of events I’m expected to be at. And so I’m just hoping to not have to choose between, let’s say, my son’s Homecoming and Walnut Hill’s Homecoming. I want to be able to have some time to be a dad and not wait until my children are your age and off and being professionals and living their own best lives, and I’d like to explore some opportunities that have a little more work-life balance. Because to do this job is really like a full-time nonstop job. I’ve done it with all the love in my heart, but I know that it’s also healthy for a new leader to come in sometimes, and I’m hoping that this is the right time for that. As for what happens to me next? What I’ve decided is that I’m not going to know that just yet. I think because it’s such a long goodbye and I’m not leaving until the end of next year, what I’m hoping to do this summer is to spend some time reflecting and meditating on that, and giving myself permission to think about what I want to do next. I know that I am interested in continuing to try to find time to do some of my own creative work. And so I think that by next year I’ll have a better answer to that question, but right now I’m leaving myself open to whatever the universe has in store for me.

BM: Okay, we have five minutes before Garrett [Murphy] kicks me out, so I’m going to do these a little more rapid-fire. So the first thing that comes to you. What are three things that you are taking with you, metaphorically, physically, or otherwise, that you did not have when first arriving on the Hill? Whether it’s an actual thing, or a relationship, or something that you’ve learned along the way. 

AV: The first thing is that it is a uniquely humbling experience and one of privilege to get to work with young people, and that if anyone has an opportunity to work with young people, it can be one of the most rewarding things you do in your life. And having a chance to do that here—I know for certain that that will stay with me. I may continue to try to find ways to work with young people. I think the second thing I’m going to bring with me are some of the really wonderful relationships I’ve established. I’ve met some amazing, extraordinary people, and I’ve been able to call them friends and colleagues and built them into my circle and sphere; I’m excited to hopefully continue to maintain some of those relationships because they mean a lot to me. And then the third thing I guess I would leave with is that I still feel the way I did on day one, that the arts are a powerful vehicle for change: I’ve watched our alums do that, and I’ve watched our students do that, and I’ve watched the faculty and staff engage in that work, so I continue to believe that the world needs artists, and we need people who are creative, and we need people who redefine what success looks like from an artistic and creative perspective. Our alums are doing really amazing work in a whole bunch of unique fields as they continue to fuel that powerful vehicle for change.

BM: Your favorite Walnut Hill tradition?

AV: Boar’s Head.

BM: Your favorite Dining Hall meal?

AV: Korean Day.

BM: I remember they used to make these scrambled eggs with bleu cheese, which in essence I guess sounds so disgusting, but I would go and ask Alice over and over, “Can you do the bleu cheese scrambled eggs?” And a mound of it would sit there for me because no one else would eat it.

AV: Alice is still here!

BM: Love her. Is there any Walnut Hill performance that has stood out to you? I know it’s hard to choose a favorite among all of them, but one that is particularly memorable.

AV: Bailey, that’s a really hard question.

BM: And you can say one that I was in. It’s fine.

AV: Okay, actually, you know what I will tell you—the one that sticks out for me the most is when Governor Deval Patrick came to your Nutcracker. And I actually have a photograph of that in my office. That was my first year and I remember being blown away by the occasion, so that one does stand out for me as unique. I remember we had to deal with his security detail and we couldn’t tell anybody he was coming, and that was a pretty big one.

BM: I know you have a background in theater, but is there one artistic Walnut Hill endeavor for which you wish you had that talent? Whether it be opera singing, or ballet, or . . .

AV: Yes. I wish I could have taken a painting class with Ken Tighe, because every time I walk into that painting studio and I watch what he does with those Visual Art students, I’m blown away by it, and I’m always feeling, I wish I could do that. That’s an easy one for me.

BM: I know you touched on this in various ways, but what will you miss most about Walnut Hill?

AV: I think one of the things that I will probably miss the most about Walnut Hill is my day-to-day interactions with kids. I said that to my wife just a couple of weeks ago when we had a group of seniors over for an adulting class, and we were teaching them how to make dinner. And so we spent two hours together just talking and hanging out up at the Head’s House. Those experiences with kids at the Head’s House, or after events, or seeing students out on the quad—I know that my day won’t have that, and I will miss that. I really know that that is something I’m already starting to struggle with: the idea that my days won’t include those encounters every day. So I’m going to try to soak up as much of that as I can before I leave.

BM: And lastly, what’s one piece of advice that you would pass on to the next generation of young Walnuts? Or the ones that are currently in attendance?

AV: One piece of advice that I would pass on would be: Don’t limit yourself to what you’re capable of doing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re not capable of doing something. Don’t let anyone convince you you’re not good enough, talented enough, creative enough—with lots of hard work and determination, anything is possible. And if you’re really committed, you can find success in a variety of ways. So don’t allow someone else to tell you what you can or cannot accomplish.

 

 

 

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