Q&A: Danielle McCracken: “Our Mission Is Education.”

It’s personal to her.

Danielle McCracken remembers well traveling to the Capitol Music Hall in downtown Wheeling as a Brooke County student to experience a performance by the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, and that’s because she later was inspired to learn how to play three different instruments thanks to the inspiration offered by the horns and the strings and the Maestro.

She also is a writer and not just because she acquired her undergraduate degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Even as the executive director of Oglebay Institute and a mother of two young boys (Adam, 12, and Colin, 10), McCracken still finds time to separate from her world to write about her world.

Danielle McCracken
Danielle McCracken

McCracken, a native of Wellsburg, graduated from Brooke High School in 1989 and from WVU in 1993, and she immediately returned to the Upper Ohio Valley to accept a community relations position with the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center. Under the tutelage of Rosemary Front, her talents blossomed to the extent that she decided to begin work on her master’s degree in public administration at WVU. During the process, she departed Easter Seals for West Liberty University to work in development, but then she and her husband, Tom, welcomed their first son.

That is when McCracken made the decision to exit the full-time employment atmosphere, and she soon began working as a development consultant for Susan Hogan and the Wheeling Symphony.

Wheeling County Day School was next for McCracken in 2009, and she served as the director for advancement for five years before THE opportunity presented itself.

The Stifel Fine Arts Center on National Road in Wheeling.
The Stifel Fine Arts Center on National Road in Wheeling.

Oglebay Institute was incorporated June 24, 1930, and now offers public programs, classes, camps, special events, and school programs for all ages in art, dance, theater, environmental education, and history, and it is the oldest arts council in the nation. The organization is guided by a 21-member board of trustees and employs more than 40 full- and part-time staff members and operates six facilities in the Wheeling area: the Schrader Environmental Education Center in Oglebay Park; the Mansion and Glass Museums, also in Oglebay; the Stifel Fine Arts Center and School of Dance, 1330 National Road; and the Towngate Theatre and Cinema, located at 2118 Market St. as well as the Terra Alta Mountain Camp in Preston County, W.Va.

When the executive director’s position became available, McCracken did not hesitate to apply because she’s been so familiar with the organization since her Brooke County school days. She’s been a member of Oglebay Institute since 1994 and served on its museums committee since 2011 while also getting involved with many other non-profit organizations including Elmhurst, the Seeing Hand Association, the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, and the American Red Cross Ohio Valley Chapter.  She is vice president of the Wheeling Rotary Club, a member of the Women’s Giving Circle, the Wheeling Symphony Auxiliary, and a sustaining member of the Junior League of Wheeling.

And that is why McCracken’s smartphone is always close by and is persistent with a number of different notifications and ring tones and also why she is a most careful thinker. The arts is a passion; each day is different; getting as many community members as possible to “dip their toes” into something new is a daily goal, and she is constantly reaching out to feel the various pulses of the multi-armed organization.

Novotney: After four months on the job, what is your opinion of the position?

McCracken: It’s wonderful. It’s a learning experience because there’s something new every day. I certainly feel blessed to work with so many wonderful people. There is so much expertise and passion with the programs that we deliver, and every day is a little different than the one before and so on.

McCracken examines the Oglebay Family Silver Display with Kelsey Traeger, a curator at the Oglebay Mansion.
McCracken examines the Oglebay Family Silver Display with Kelsey Traeger, a curator at the Oglebay Mansion.

Novotney: What are your primary goals at this time?

McCracken: We must have quality in our programs. That’s always been the goal here, and it always will be.

I want to maintain the quality that people have experienced and have come to expect when it comes to Oglebay Institute over the past 85 years. Accessibility is very important to me, too, because it’s very important for us to reach as many people as we can — people of all ages.

One thing people may not realize is that while we deliver all of our programs at all of our facilities, we also strive to be a resource inside the classrooms not only in Wheeling but also in our surrounding communities. They are all built on the core standards of the classroom, so I would like to increase the visibility of those of programs so that more and more people realize that we are the source of a lot of great education.

I believe that in any kind of organization or business we always have to pay attention to the needs of the people we are serving, and I’m looking forward to those kinds of conversations so that I can get that kind of feedback. Lives are busy, so I feel it’s important for us to be responsive.

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Novotney: How important is affordability?

McCracken: That is very, very important to us.

We have been fortunate to have the support this year from the J.B. Chambers Foundation that has allowed us to offer $10,000 worth of scholarships. This summer alone we are probably going to be able to offer $17,000 in scholarship for kids so that they can access our summer camps.

We pay close attention to what our fees are to make sure that they are accessible to the community, and we really do rely on memberships and program participation for revenue, as well as donations from the community in order to do everything that we do. It takes a lot of funding, so we need to maintain those great relationships that we have with our community, let our donors know that we are great stewards of the gifts that they give, and continue being a valuable member of our community.

Novotney: How much has it benefited you that one of your best friends was once the executive of Oglebay Institute?

The Schrader Environmental Education Center in Oglebay Park.
The Schrader Environmental Education Center in Oglebay Park.

McCracken: It has been wonderful. Kathleen (McDermott) and I have been friends for years. We first became friends when we were both just starting our professional careers here in the Upper Ohio Valley. At that time I was working for Easter Seals, and she was the development director here. I’ve always loved art and music, and I have been involved with Oglebay Institute for several, several years.

And through the years I have been involved with Oglebay Institute on many different levels – from taking pottery classes with my mom to being a member of a focus group. Plus, when I worked with the Symphony and when I was with Country Day School, we partnered a lot with Oglebay Institute because of the great work this organization has always done in this community.

But yes, Kathleen has been a great support; she was an amazing leader here, and it is always a great thing to have her to talk with and to give advice.

Novotney: What has proven to be the most challenging part of being the executive director of Oglebay Institute?

McCracken: I think when there are so many different arms to this organization, it is very difficult to be able to continuously have one finger on all of the pulses. Communication is very important to me so I can understand everything that is happening.

And there are many day-to-day challenges while trying to do all of the things that I need to do, and I also feel that it’s important for me to get out there to all of the facilities, too, and to know our staff and see our programs in progress, so I guess another challenge is simply time and budgeting that time.

Novotney: How frustrating is it that there are still many folks in this area who still are not aware of everything Oglebay Institute has to offer?

Oglebay Institute offers a plethora of different summer camps for local children, including her two sons.
Oglebay Institute offers a plethora of different summer camps for local children, including her two sons.

McCracken: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I would call it frustrating, but our communication and our marketing are essential, and our staff does a great job with getting information out to our local residents. We are well aware that without our community’s support we would be very limited, so it is always very important for us to communicate with as many people as we can.

Our mission is education, and we want to serve everyone. We want to serve those who want to learn more about so many different topics and subjects. Education enhances a community, and that’s why we are here as a resource.

Novotney: Why were you interested in becoming the executive director of Oglebay Institute?

McCracken: I know what a valuable resource Oglebay Institute is in this community, and it was the perfect opportunity to bring in my experience with the arts and in education, and it was a chance for my passion to be put to work. This organization has been very important in my life, so this was a chance to be able to make sure that it would continue its mission with quality as a top priority.

I felt like I wanted to be a part of that, and I felt like I was ready to fill the position.

Novotney: Is this your dream job?

McCracken: It’s definitely challenging, but it’s something that I love to do. Every day is full; every day is challenging, but it feels like home. It feels like this is where I was meant to be.

Novotney: Is this your last job?

McCracken: I hope so.

I am very happy here, and I would like to be here for many, many years. Like I said; this feels like home.

Dance is a staple program at Oglebay Institute, and the region's children benefit from local and international instructors.
Dance is a staple program at Oglebay Institute, and the region’s children benefit from local and international instructors.

(Photos by Steve Novotney; headshot provided by Oglebay Institute)