Ten Minutes with Jennifer Trainer Thompson
Hancock Shaker Village’s new chief
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane
Jennifer Trainer Thompson has set up shop in the painted wooden dwellings of Hancock Shaker Village, after three decades in the 19th-century industrial complex of MASS MoCA (her last position as senior VP of partnerships and external affairs). As the living-history museum’s president/CEO, the seasoned author (Hot Sauce! and The Fresh Egg Cookbook, among many others) is a creative, brightly dressed idea machine. Her charge is to breathe new life into the region’s “city of peace.”
How has the adjustment to Shaker life been after MASS MoCA?
The real joy of MASS MoCA was building it, literally building it, and helping to lift it off the ground. Hancock Shaker Village is different in that it has great bones, it just needs to be fleshed out. I’ve never worked in a place that has a spirit like this. It’s like the Shakers just left.
What personal connection do you have to that kind of spirituality?
I went to a Quaker college. Even back then, I was drawn to the Quaker philosophy of being guided in your actions by your values—a sort of principled living, if you will. And when I took this job, I did a lot of research on the Shakers, and I was struck by their commitment to land renewal, sustainability, and particularly gender equality. We are talking about the late 1700s, so that’s very progressive. I also admire their commitment to simplicity and style.
Has that spirituality spilled over into your life?
I feel like all of that ties into the writing that I do.
How do you stay faithful to the Shaker mission while trying to revitalize the Village and make it relevant?
The possibilities are pretty limitless. When I first came on [in January], I already knew that I wanted to extend the programming and events here. The Shakers were innovators, and their values have more relevance than ever. Hancock Shaker Village can be a vehicle for talking about food, farming, sustainability, design, land renewal … the list goes on. The Shakers were the original stewards of the land. They contributed greatly to the canon of American folk music.
We’ll be opening the 1910 barn this summer—it’s only seen cows and hay for a hundred years—with a Shaker-barn music series that celebrates American-roots music. And we’re starting a “Food for Thought” series, basically dinner and conversation with today’s best thinkers who write about issues of relevance. Elizabeth Kolbert, Deval Patrick, Stacy Schiff, Mary Evelyn Tucker—it’s going to be exciting to have them here making those connections. We also have a new store—Hancock Mercantile—with Nadia Dole [former manager of The Store at Five Corners in Williamstown] at the helm, and the café, which Chef Brian Alberg is leading. We want to enhance the visitor experience. It’s quite literally farm-to-table.
How long have you been in the Berkshires?
A tenth-generation Yankee, I was born in Boston and grew up in New England and Indiana. My first husband and I moved from Manhattan in 1985 to grow shiitake mushrooms in North Adams … so, 32 years ago. My god, that sounds like a long time. I felt like Eva Gabor in “Green Acres.” When he passed away in 1989, all of my friends assumed that I would hightail it back to New York. But I didn’t. Williamstown had become home to me by then.
Where are some hidden places in the Village where you like to go for a few minutes?
Before I started working here, I asked for a tour of the hidden spaces. The second floor of the Poultry House is so quiet. There is shelving from the 1800s up there that Amy Bess Miller rescued from the original Berkshire Athenaeum. Also, the upper floors of the Trustees house have a beautiful view overlooking the Village. One can almost imagine living there. The archives—where the gift drawings and thousands of works on paper are stored—are pretty special. It’s important in the future to find a way to truly open up the library as a resource.
How does the idea process happen when you think about programming?
I try to think about what is unique to this place, and might enhance and complement the ethos of the Village. Journeys that take you deeper, that are fun. Then we try to figure out how to make that happen. We are so fortunate to have this authentic village smack dab in the middle of the Berkshires. It opens us up to collaborations with other cultural institutions and people because it’s so central. This summer, six artists who call this region home are featured in an exhibition in the Poultry House: Jenny Holzer, Gregory Crewdson, Don Gummer, Stephen Hannock, David Teeple, and Maya Lin. Called “Dwelling,” the show is about the intersection of purpose, place, and ideas, which is very much what grounded the Shakers in Hancock.
Were there any surprises in your new position?
At first, it felt like I was drinking from a firehose. There is so much to learn and do. I had been here a week and couldn’t get my email or calendar to sync on my phone. So I asked our IT guy if he could fix it. He said that he could do it in three days. He was so precise, like he didn’t have to think about it. So I asked him why three days. “I have to take care of the farm animals on Tuesdays through Thursdays,” he said. “People wear many hats here.”