Retiring AHA! Director Lee Heald relishes the chance to learn anywhere she can. Simply put, the world is her classroom.

Combining art, history, and architecture, AHA! has become a New Bedford staple for bringing people together the second Thursday evening of each month to celebrate themes surrounding local culture. Heald helped write the first AHA! grant 25 years ago, never dreaming it would lead to a full-blown organization, let alone the next two decades of her career. Now, AHA! has 60 partners and attracts thousands of attendees each month, including many New Bedford-area residents and tourists from afar. 

Through AHA! Heald has thrived on promoting creativity and togetherness while empowering people across generations to learn and connect with the world around them.

“One of the great rewards is knowing that there’s a whole generation of kids who have grown up knowing that their city is an arts and culture opportunity for them, that they live in a creative place, that they live in a place where people trust, that they live in a place where it’s safe to come downtown,” Heald said.

Originally from Rhode Island, she studied American history at Brown University and decided to pursue museum education after college. She obtained a masters in Museum Studies from the University of Delaware and a PhD in Museum Studies from Lesley University. From Mystic Seaport, Hancock Shaker Village, and the Rhode Island Museum of Island History, to Plimoth Plantation and the Freedom Trail Foundation, Heald seized opportunities to work at many educational sites. When her twin sons were 2 years old in 1995, Heald and her family moved to New Bedford, where she got a job at the Whaling Museum first as deputy director and as then vice president. 

When AHA! was born, Heald jumped at the chance to think outside the box and promote New Bedford as an arts and culture scene. The first AHA! Night took place in July 1999, and the organization grew quickly from there. 

Lee Heald, second from left, at the Star Store with, from left, Viera Leavitt, Noelle Foye and Lee Blake. Credit: Contributed

Now, after building the organization and helping it flourish, Heald will retire from AHA! on Sept. 1. Looking back at her accomplishments with the organization, she remains very modest.

“I like to be the person who lines up the dominoes, where I’m at one end and I push it and everybody’s like, ‘Wow, look at that.’ By that time, I’m long gone,” Heald said. 

Thinking about life after AHA!, Heald said she feels confident that her passion for staying active and exploring the outdoors will keep her busy. Throughout her career, she has held roles on many boards and continues to stay involved with the community through her current seats on the boards of Mass Humanities, the Mattapoisett Museum, and the Mattapoisett Library Trust.

In an interview with The New Bedford Light, Heald reflected on her two decades with AHA!, her retirement, and her love of learning.

New Bedford Light: How did you get involved with AHA!?

Lee Heald: This whole notion of New Bedford as an arts and culture hub has come over time. In 1997, a bunch of people got together to do something called a Regional Community Congress. It brought together six sectors of society, and there was a committee for arts and culture. We met once a month, and the plan of AHA! was really the only thing that panned out after two years.

I always say that the DNA of AHA! really came from that time period in New Bedford where the city was going to amplify the vision of itself and create a positive image and really move forward and think about the future and use resources. The idea of the Regional Community Congress was that New Bedford would once again be a hub. The DNA for AHA! was so successful and has been such a great model throughout the state and in the country because it wasn’t just the notion of the creative economy where you have artists putting stuff on the wall, and you have somebody playing music, and you call it the creative economy. The DNA of AHA! is really deeply embedded in all areas of the community. … We weren’t always about big-A art and big-C culture. It was really what the community had to offer in all areas.

NBL: How have you seen AHA! grow?

LH: The first AHA! Night, we had 267 people. We thought we were the bee’s knees. There had never really been that many people downtown on Thursday night. And now if there aren’t thousands of people, we think “Well, was it the weather? What happened? Where are all those people?” 

We decided we would do themes and try to really make the themes inclusive. It might not be something that was your strength one time, but you could work with it. We did pumpkins one day, and carved pumpkins. We’ve had so many different themes over time. Sometimes it’s an environmental theme. Sometimes it’s an arts theme. Sometimes it’s a music theme. We’ve looked at history with a women’s history theme. We did Lincoln’s 200th birthday. We’ve really done a variety of things. The mix is really important because you need to give everyone a chance to participate and shine and feel that it’s their own and that they own it. 

When you look at where New Bedford is now and the amount of support for arts and culture and the amount of projects and the support for local artists, I think AHA! has played a central role in that because it’s created an identity and it’s created a brand. It has created a sense of trust and understanding, and it’s really helped people and empowered people to work collaboratively. In the maritime community, people say that the rising tide does float all boats. It really is important to connect; it’s really important to collaborate. 

Lee Heald, left, with Mayor Jon Mitchell and former New Bedford Art Musuem Director Noelle Foye. Credit: Contributed

NBL: How does it feel to have watched your idea come to life?

LH: It has been a privilege and an honor and a great joy. They say if you really love what you do, it’s not work. I think that that is true about me. I have truly loved being part of the project. Not only is it collaborative, but it’s cooperative, which I think is a great foundation moving forward. It’s built on relationships. I think a lot of times when you do programs, it ends up being transactional, because you’re always moving towards that next thing. … With AHA! you have a sense of continuity. You have a sense of people growing up in the program. 

A lot of times, tourism projects are always defined as attracting people from more than 50 miles away. Community projects are just for the community. AHA! has that really interesting mix because it’s both for the community and for people to have access to what’s going on in New Bedford. So it goes both ways, and I think that’s really important. It’s also experimental. 

NBL: What are your post-retirement plans?

LH: I’ve had some time to think about it because we started a strategic plan in 2019, and then of course, the pandemic came. I told myself that I needed a bucket list. So my bucket list is going to all the states in the United States. I’ve had the great fortune to travel widely. I’m only missing three states at this point: North Dakota, Mississippi and Alabama. I’m also trying to collect a lot of the national parks and the big hotels, and I’m gonna work on my bird list. I’m up around 500, and so I’ve done a lot of birding over time. It gets you outside. You get up at some early hour and go out but it gets you to connect with the community, and then you see these beautiful things early in the morning. I play tennis outside three mornings a week. I’m pretty active, but you’d have to be to do AHA! because you’re always in motion. Part of it is just seeing people and making those connections. 

I love my life. I’ve been so fortunate and I’m so grateful. I’ve had the ability to garden, to birdwatch in this area, to go biking in the morning or to go walking in the morning or to play tennis at 7:30 or to kayak last night from 7:30 to 9 in this beautiful harbor. A lot of people work at jobs they don’t like and when they retire, they have all these things they’re going to do. I’ve had this job I’ve loved forever. I loved working at the Whaling Museum. I’ve loved doing this. I love the area that I’m in, and I will do more of it.

NBL: What does community mean to you?

LH: I like the local. If you do local history, you hear great local stories and local experiences, because it’s so fresh and immediate. You hear stories that have personal appeal and are kind of the fabric of the community. Some stories don’t make it up to the large screen, but when you listen carefully, you hear the fabric of the small screen, which is always fascinating.

I’m on the board of Mass Humanities. We did a whole thing about expanding Massachusetts stories, because that levels the playing field for how people understand themselves and how people project themselves out to the future and to their community because every story is valid. Every authentic story is really valid. And it may not rise to changing the nation or world but it’s important to you. And it’s important to your community, whatever that community is — if it’s a religious community, or an ethnic community, or social community or professional community. You start about how you build up that sense of meaning for people. That’s kind of the fun of AHA! because it has validated smaller pieces and them together as a whole. It helps people find their place and create that place and claim their space, claim their importance, and be recognized over time.

Lee Heald enjoying the night life on a December night 2022. Credit: Contributed

NBL: How did you get interested in museum education?

LH: I went to a small experimental school for elementary school. Every Friday, my whole class — seven people — would fit into a Volkswagen bus. We went to local spaces. We went to museums, parks, and historic sites. Every Friday was field trip day. I became interested in that whole notion. Then I went to Brown, and it was the first year of the open curriculum. So you could create your own pathway and you can take classes pass/fail. I loved this idea, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in the right school. So I created what I wanted to do. At Brown, I also worked in a place called School One, which was an experimental open day school for high school students, mostly GED students. And that’s when I got really working on that whole idea of contract curriculum. We did all this great stuff and went to some great museums in the area. I just loved that whole experience and that motivation, because when you really want to know something, if you’re given the resources, you can really make it happen. 

Someone looked at me in my senior seminar and said, “You should be a museum educator. You could do this for your whole life.” Two days after I graduated from Brown, I started working at Mystic Seaport in museum education. I was a sailor, so I taught sailing, and I lived on The Conrad. A year later, I started graduate school in Delaware for museum education and museum studies. I got some fellowships through there and kept going and taught at Hancock Shaker Village for a summer, then worked in Rhode Island, when they were starting the new Museum of Island History. Then I went to Plimoth Plantation and then went up for my PhD and started working with the Park Service and all of their programs. And then I came to the Whaling Museum.

We have all these great opportunities in life, and when you put them all together, it’s like a string of pearls. … I got started, because my class took field trips every Friday.

Rachel Wachman is a correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

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