As part of Women’s History Month, we had a ‘virtual sit down’ with Preservation Virginia CEO, Elizabeth S. Kostelny. Elizabeth, who is celebrating 30 years with Preservation Virginia, has gained an incredible amount of insight and wisdom during her tenure. As a woman at the top of her field, there was much to gain hearing what she had to say, both about preservation now and in the past, and about what it takes to be a female leader today.
As an originally female-led movement, how has preservation resulted in the empowerment of women through the years?
APVA was founded by women who found agency in an organization established to preserve history. Admittedly, their views of that history were much more narrow than our perspectives today. Nonetheless, they created a structure that could be evolved, adapted and shaped to be relevant and expansive over time. I feel especially fortunate to have worked shoulder to shoulder with some powerhouse women in preservation–consummate professionals whether their efforts were their chosen vocation or avocation. The list is long and it is an all star list that extends to my colleagues on the staff and on the board today.
The field is expansive as well and allows for women with different backgrounds, training and interest to find a place and to make a difference.
In what ways have you seen the preservation movement change?
The movement has broadened its scope of not only the types of structures and landscapes it seeks to preserve, but also the people and communities it embraces and the stories being told. While we have a long road ahead, I feel like historic preservation intersects with a range of communities and movements like never before. The protests calling for social and racial justice last year elevated awareness of the different perspectives of our history and how historic places can be used as forums for discussion. Older buildings represent the best ways to preserve the environment. Rehabbing is recycling! Heritage tourism and historic rehabilitation are both poised to help communities climb back in the economic recovery following the pandemic. Students of every age are taking advantage of opportunities to learn about history. That is a lot of momentum to help grow the historic preservation movement.
What would you consider the most important responsibility of preservationists today?
Historic preservationists are uniquely positioned in today’s environment to use places of history as platforms for revealing the whole story. At our historic sites in our portfolio, I am humbled by the work of our staff team to reach out and engage communities of descendants to tell a truthful and genuine story of the people and the events at these places. That work takes time, patience and trust building for it to be effective. Similarly programs including Rosenwald Schools and Tobacco Barns have encouraged individuals and groups to come together and tell their stories of attachment to these places. When we succeed, people find that they have common memories and goals and that these places need to be preserved to keep those stories alive.
If you could say anything to yourself when you were just starting out, what would it be?
Slow down and take it all in! The transformation of Preservation Virginia has been extraordinary over the past thirty years. Oftentimes we are all so busy that we haven’t taken a moment to look at what has been accomplished. The lead up to 2007 with the planning of facilities, exhibits and events was a rush. Similarly, over the last decade, the staff and board work with communities of underrepresented history to elevate places and stories that are connecting us to a broader sense of our past and intense work to save the James River and Shockoe Bottom. Being forced to shift gears in the pandemic has given us time to digest some of those advances and to consider how to improve and modify approaches in the future.
Who were some of your greatest influences when it comes to your management style?
Both my husband and I worked at McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. Our directors, Geoge Terry and Lynn Robertson, gave us incredible freedom to write and manage grants, curate and install exhibits and work with artists, collectors, historians and artisans. We handled objects of Egyptian and Roman antiquities and works of Picasso, Jasper Johns, Ed Rice, Sam Doyle to name a few. We supported the craftspeople who were keeping traditional arts including seagrass and split oak basketry, quilting and Catawba pottery. As students and young professionals, we were given the independence to take on these projects and were accountable to find the funding and manage the concept from start to finish. Lynn and George knew they were training the next generation of museum professionals. They stepped in when we needed help and guidance. Otherwise, they knew we would learn more by doing than by being micromanaged. I’ve always tried to take the same approach at Preservation Virginia. I’ve also recognized that there is value in having a mix of seasoned professionals while always making room for people entering the field.
What is your best non-preservation-related life advice?
Listen and be present. Multi-tasking is tempting in this hectic world. Yet the best and most fulfilling moments are when you open yourself to hear a different point of view, closely examine an architectural feature or enjoy a vista with no distractions.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It is a rarity today for people to spend 30 years at one institution. In many ways, my tenure at Preservation Virginia has been similar to working at three distinct institutions. Each period has held one trait in common: the Board and staff have courageously viewed opportunities to remain relevant, embracing change as a way to save more historic places and to ensure that Virginia’s complex history is examined and known.