When Alice Kemerling gained a second title 10 years ago as assistant director of the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival (also known as The Gilmore), she had already served for a dozen years as the organization’s director of development. And now, as she steps down from her leadership positions this fall, Kemerling says that the key to her success is relationships.
“I have always just naturally enjoyed getting to know people and learning about what they’re interested in, their families, their connection to their community. It’s all about listening and understanding what they care about,” Kemerling says. “In my case, humor is a big part of my personality, and I think it’s an approach that people appreciate. I imagine there are times people are asked to give and it’s not that much fun.”
Like most arts organizations, The Gilmore, known for its biennial piano festival, is supported by a range of funding streams, from grant makers, corporations, family-owned businesses and philanthropists to monthly donors of modest amounts. Kemerling is leaving after a noteworthy year. In the spring the organization staged its first festival since 2018 — having to curtail the 2020 festival because of the Covid-19 pandemic — and was a beneficiary of support from the former head of a local brewing company, Larry Bell, who provided funds to endow a Larry J. Bell Jazz Award, adding to The Gilmore’s roster of awards, commissions and presentations of jazz and classical music.
Kemerling grew up in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and attended Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida, where she studied speech and theater, and she went to work for Stetson’s admissions office after graduation. When her department head moved to Kalamazoo College, he recruited Kemerling to join him. It was work she says she loved, but she eventually set it aside for about 10 years to raise her three children.
“Traveling seven months out of the year didn’t work for a newlywed or a new mom,” she notes.
She married her husband, Mike, four months after meeting him on a blind date 43 years ago. They have three grown children and two grandchildren. When she returned to full-time work, it was as director of development for Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where her half dozen years of service began with helping raise funds to build the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
“I had done a little fundraising through the Junior League as a volunteer, but since Mike grew up here, I had a lot of relationships built up over the years, and that’s what fundraising is about,” she says. “The community college was on the brink of starting a $20 million campaign to build the new museum (which opened in 1996), and I was serving on the KVCC Foundation board at the time. The KVCC director of development left, and they needed someone quickly. I was really excited about the museum project, and
I just lucked out when they hired me. That was my first real job in fundraising. My feet were truly in the frying pan, but we had a lot of people working very hard.
“Marilyn Schlack (former KVCC president) was so capable and connected, and she raised several million (dollars) with the campaign chairs, who were area CEOs. They did the bulk of the heavy lifting, primarily from foundations and big corporations. Then we had mid-level corporations and a whole bunch of individuals and families.”
Among the latter group were hundreds, if not thousands, of public-school students. Fueled by the most popular exhibit at the museum, Kemerling and the project’s community engagement committee launched the “Move the Mummy” campaign.
“When we only had less than $100,000 left to go, we did this enormous community campaign to have as many people as possible understand that this was their museum,” Kemerling says. “Patty Huiskamp had collected a garage full of tennis ball cans, and we got one of those in every elementary school classroom in KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency) for kids to share their spare change. We had costumed characters of a mummy, a dinosaur, and a scientist who would visit schools and pitch the cause. We had a lot of fun.”
Education is still important to Kemerling, and she is very proud of The Gilmore’s programs that offer lessons to students, adults and residents of the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Detention Center. In addition, mentoring and supporting young artists on their career ascent is part of the organization’s work.
“Our Rising Stars series features young artists who have a pretty good career going, but they’re not extremely well known,” Kemerling says. “We are catching them on their way up. Many times no one has heard of them yet. Lang Lang was on our calendar way back when most people were unaware of him.
He was so young — just a boy — and on his way to an 80-city tour right after being here. You had a feeling he was going to do well.”
Another way The Gilmore fosters young artists is through its Young Artists program, which singles out the most promising U.S.-based pianists age 22 and younger.
“Our Gilmore Young Artists are all based in the U.S. and are still in school, so they don’t have a lot of opportunity to perform. They come for the festival and become part of The Gilmore family. It’s not management so much as nurturing. We have that in our mission statement … We nurture these young artists, we nurture the Gilmore Artists, even though they’re beyond that early stage.
“That’s an enormous part of our mission, to nurture and celebrate a passion for piano music, and the nurturing is not just artists — it’s kids and families and even adults who take our piano lessons. It’s getting people to develop an interest and getting them inspired by music and involved in it.”
The concept of nurturing also has meaning when it comes to donors, says Kemerling.
“Nurturing donors just means making friends with patrons who might someday be interested in financially supporting us,” she says. “There are so many aspects of our programs that might appeal. It might be a certain artist or type of music or where the artist is from or an education program. We can generally find a good match, but it’s not the same for every person. It’s very individual.
“It’s building the relationship and listening and figuring out together with someone what would make them happy and excited. We have a pair of new sponsors, a couple who I got to know over the years and then asked if they would like to co-sponsor a concert. When I saw them during the festival, they said, ‘This sponsoring concerts is really fun!’ That’s what you want to see, the joy that people experience when they are supporting something they care about.”
Kemerling’s next chapter will include volunteering and travel and consulting on special projects with The Gilmore. Her many volunteer connections include service with the Bronson Health Foundation Board, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Junior League of Kalamazoo, the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo and, most recently, Farmers Alley Theatre and Ministry with Community.
“I have enjoyed helping to steer the ship,” she says. “That’s been one of my favorite things to do, which I’ve had the privilege of doing for the last 10 years. I’m going to miss that. I love Kalamazoo, and that’s an overriding feature of why I’ve enjoyed my work so much. I love this community and being able to help out in different ways.”