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The Keeper of the Awesome Knowledge

"Libraries have never been stuffy, exclusive or smarty-pants places – they have always felt like awesome vaults of forbidden knowledge."

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Providence Athenaeum’s new Executive Director, Matt Burriesci, always fostered an affinity for libraries. “To me,” he says, “libraries have never been stuffy, exclusive or smarty-pants places – they have always felt like awesome vaults of forbidden knowledge. The best kind of knowledge!” His addition of forbidden may seem antithetical since in a library, anything is permissible. However, this surreptitiousness gives knowledge acquisition its thrill, and for Matt, correlates to an early memory of checking out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at eight years old. “I couldn’t believe they let me check that out and read it,” he says, “The illustrations were terrifying. It felt blasphemous and wrong.”

That’s the beauty of libraries – as terrifying and forbidden-feeling as a book like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is, it will always be accessible. Burriesci and his wife, Erin, treat literacy in their own home with direct evidence of this philosophy, too: “We want [our kids] to be surrounded by books. I also never want a book to be off limits to them – although I do note that once my daughter colored through a number of pages of a very nice edition of the Iliad. So maybe this isn’t the wisest policy.” It’s safe to say, then, the paradoxically public and secret, downright awesome vaults at the Athenaeum are in good hands.

Just like the Athenaeum itself, Burriesci’s professional literary background and experience is eclectic and expansive. He has netted 20 years in director and leadership roles across three highly regarded organizations in the field: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, PEN/Faulkner Foundation and Association of Writers and Writing Programs. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and published two books, Dead White Guys: A Father, His Daughter, and the Great Books of the Western World and Nonprofit.

Burriesci’s most recent position as Director of Advancement and Strategic Partnerships for the National Association of Chain Drug Store (NACDS) Foundations may seem like a strange turn in his journey, but it comes with strong familial ties. His father, older sister and twin brother are doctors; his mother is a nurse; and his other two brothers have experience in medicine and medical technology. Matt also consulted for the Association of Academic Health Centers before NACDS, serving large academic institutions like Harvard, Yale and Duke.

Burriesci’s time at NACDS gave him a distinguished perspective, serving as a strong buttress for his new role: “When you think of a chain drug store, like CVS Health, you may not realize how many areas of the public and private sectors they interact with – consumer products, pharmaceutical and technology companies, patients, parents, higher education, doctors, public health agencies, federal regulatory bodies. Coming from the arts, it was difficult to appreciate the scale of Corporate America, and to understand the problems that decent people inside those businesses are trying to solve... The big lesson I learned there was that big change requires big collaboration, and with an honest broker in the middle.”

Burriesci possess an intersection of skills that is rare but also necessary to fulfill the dynamic role of Executive Director of the Providence Athenaeum. He has over 20 years experience in the arts, literature and the humanities as well as a strong professional portfolio in fundraising. Burriesci achieves a return to his primary passions, literature and the arts, in his professional life with his new role. Unlike the larger organizations he has worked with in the past, the Athenaeum has an even narrower scope: facilitating the historical, cultural, and literary needs of the Providence community – the neighbors, new friends and real life people Burriesci sees and interacts with everyday both on and off the job. He sees Providence as a thriving cultural hub with an unique fixture such as the Athenaeum at the center, an unrivaled asset the city has that led his journey to the East Side.

Burriesci, his wife Erin and their two children, Violet and Henry, relocated to Providence from Virginia. “I was here during WaterFire, and I just fell in love with it,” Burriesci commented. “I went on one of the boats down the river, and what struck me was that there were all these people on the banks and nobody was staring at a phone! Not one person.”

Between taking care of his two kids, his new position at the Athenaeum, and his own writing projects, Burriesci is a pretty busy guy. “The Athenaeum is a trusted cultural collaborator in Providence, and I was amazed by the support the cultural community showed throughout the search process,” he says. “I think that’s a testament both to the thriving cultural life of Providence, but also the unique role the Athenaeum plays in the city.” In whatever downtime that remains, he does enjoy playing a hand of poker or two. If anyone on the East Side needs an extra player, Burriesci would ingratiate himself by bringing beer, should you extend an invite.

251 Benefit Street, Providence. 421-6970, www.providenceathenaeum.org