BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – This evening's fall open house for the Wharton Institute of Performing Arts (WIPA) marks the beginning of the fall session for students, faculty and executives of the non-profit organization. It will be Executive Director Peter H. Gistelinck’s first open house, and first fall semester since having been appointed by the board. 

TAPinto Berkeley Heights sat down with Gistelinck a few weeks after he began his tenure with WIPA, and talked about what attracted him to the position and his vision for the future of the organization.

Gistelinck, 57, established himself in the non-profit music world while working in Belgium and France, before moving to the United States in September, 2006, from Brussels, Belgium, to become the executive director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. In May, 2014, he was named president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and on July 1, he became the executive director of WIPA. Learn more about Gistelinck here.

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Asked what attracted him to the WIPA, he said “What they stand for,” as represented by the three programs that make up WIPA -- the New Jersey Youth Symphony, the Performing Arts School and the Paterson Music Project. Each of these programs serves the WIPA’s mission, to provide an arts education to all ages, provide performance opportunities for its students, while at the same time giving back to the community. The commitment of WIPA to giving back to the community and “creating an opportunity for the children and the youth to experience music and art” was the tipping point for him.

One of his goals is to continue enhance the stability of the organization as it expands, “to make sure that all of our programs are accessible one way or another by everybody.”  To do that requires a “very well-defined long-range strategic plan that will be back up by a very realistic long-range financial plan … It is very, very, very important when you lay out your mission and your vision that the financial side of that also follows. If not, you end up with a beautiful strategic plan and, at the end of the plan you say, ‘We couldn’t really achieve it because we didn’t have the money,’” he said.

While WIPA is “extremely grateful” for funding from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts and National Council on the Arts, “we are running a nearly $4 million organization,” he said.

After almost 25 years in the non-profit world, he said he has learned ‘even when you change continents you have the same issues.”   He has held one-on-one meetings with staff and board members and they are busy evaluating each program. They are exploring “what can we do better? What can we change,” he said, but “always with a positive mind-set,” so even if a program is great, they ask “what can we do better? What works, what doesn’t work and, if it doesn’t work, what can we do differently?”

He said he had head of Performing Arts Artistic Director Helen Cha-Pyo before joining WIPA and knew she was “a really well-respected person” in her field, which “was a factor in his taking the job. We hit it off when we met and talked. We are on the same page,” he said.  

He also  said he has a “very good relationship with Board President Robert Hamburger” whom he described as “very hands on, on top of everything, and extremely helpful in recruiting new board members who can bring added value to the organization.” The commitment of board members is the key to making a non-profit successful, and “they have been very supportive on all levels. They are very committed and keep the organization close to their hearts,” he said.

Which brings the topic around to the WIPA’s endowment. “We need to start establishing an endowment – it will be small in the beginning, but you have to start somewhere,” he said and it will grow over time.

 “We are basically serving 10 counties … We are one of the largest, if not the largest, independent music education organizations” in New Jersey.   But the WIPA’s mission is to provide the highest quality performing arts education to a wide range of students in a supportive and inclusive environment, so it is important to made sure “our development activities and funding can keep all those services affordable,” he said.

To that end, he said he plans to find contributors by approaching the state’s many businesses and multi-national corporations, as well as individuals. “I’m going to call on them to support us. It isn’t about us, it is about the community and what we can do in our community, the 10 counties (WIPA serves), through the businesses and multi-nationals based in New Jersey.  That will give a huge positive result if specific companies say ‘We can underwrite this program,’ which will make the program more affordable.  I think we have a lot of opportunities to achieve that.”

“Budget has such a huge impact, which is why I am going to give an opportunity” to those companies and individuals to “make a difference in their community, while our people in our community can also make a difference for their companies,” Gistelinck said.

Before any actions are taken, though, there need to be some “thorough and deep conversations,” he said.

Another idea being discussed is the use of technology to increase the reach of WIPA programs. He said it should be possible to turn one room into an on-line studio for music instruction which could be used for a pilot program. That’s in the future, however.

For now, Gistelinck said he was “honored to be here. I take this on with all my heart and soul and am very motivated. You work with your heart, then you see the kids running around and they are happy and that really boosts you … We are doing it to create opportunities for the children and the youth.”

The idea is not for the WIP to make everyone a professional, it is to “create an arts platform … so that our children basically know what it is. The most beautiful reward is that you can make a difference in a child’s life for a lifetime,” he said. What the children have learned is “engraved in their brain and it will create a forever memory” which changes their life, he concluded.