Today we’d like to introduce you to Matt Burriesci.
Hi Matt, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I’ve always been involved in the humanities. Along with others, I founded my first nonprofit, the Penny Dreadful Players, at the University of Illinois in 1992. It’s still an active nonprofit. After college, I was fortunate enough to work for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which was a tremendous learning experience. In graduate school, I became involved with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), where I was part of a team that helped build the largest, most diverse literary conference in North America. I then served as Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
I believe the humanities are essential to all of our lives, and that as citizens, we’ve diminished and denigrated them to our collective disadvantage. I feel rather strongly about it, and I was lucky enough to publish a couple of books, one of which is on this subject. I came to the attention of the Providence Athenaeum, which was looking for a new Executive Director. It was a great fit, and the Athenaeum has proved to be the most rewarding professional experience of my life.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Every organization has challenges, and no career is without crisis. Certainly the 2008 Financial Crisis was a massive challenge to many nonprofits, and I was in the thick of that. It felt like the sky was falling. But in some ways, that was a much easier problem than the pandemic. The pandemic has been extremely challenging to all nonprofit organizations, especially cultural ones like the Athenaeum, which is a face-to-face organization with a strong community component.
The Athenaeum is well-known for bringing great thinkers into our beautiful historic space and engaging with our community. Suddenly, we couldn’t do that anymore, so we had to pivot quickly in order to fulfill our mission: to enrich the mind, inspire the spirit, and elevate the public discourse. We moved to a virtual program series, we introduced new digital services, and, even when the library was closed, we found a way to continue getting books into the hands of our members. And remarkably, it’s all worked out.
I think it also changed the way we work, and in a healthy way– I’m not sure the whole “Be at a desk 40 hours a week” model was necessarily that productive, but the change in the work culture has also been extremely rapid. Virtual working environments are possible now, and they can be every bit as productive–maybe moreso– than the traditional model.
Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
When my daughter Violet was born prematurely in 2010, under dramatic circumstances, I promised to write her a book. I read The Great Books of the Western World, which was a curated set of canonical texts from 1952 (Think Plato, Plutarch, Shakespeare, John Locke, etc.). I think it was one of the greatest educational experiences of my life, and I wrote a series of letters to Violet, in which I explained the texts, and why they were relevant to me, to her, and to the society we live in. The book “Dead White Guys” was the result, and I’m proud of it, even if I gave it a deliberately provocative title.
I think these books have been all but erased from our lives. Certainly, I did not experience many of them in my academic life, and I have a degree in literature. I believe they are widely misunderstood and misrepresented if they are discussed at all. (For example: did you know Machiavelli was a fan of representative governance?) Reading these books helped me realize how we came to be the way we are, how we came to think the way we do, and how I should approach ideas in general. They are not the only books we should read, and there’s room to criticize them–but I also think that’s the essence of their tradition. These books are filled with wisdom, compassion, and profound insights into the human condition, and my experience reading them, and learning about them, did change my life. They taught me how to think, not what to think.
So maybe we end by discussing what matters most to you and why?
Well, my family is the most important thing to me, of course. Apart from that, I’ve dedicated my professional life to the idea that we can build a humanistic society that is pluralistic, tolerant, and decent. We can all read more and speak less.
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