By Stephen Butler
Five and a half years ago I arrived at CNY Arts, the regional arts council, then called the Cultural Resources Council and referred to as the CRC. That acronym told me a lot about the agency – if you weren’t in the loop you’d have no idea what the organization was or what it did – and I really wanted to change that. Back in the day, the CRC had done plenty for the community, including helping to raise funds to build, and then to manage, the Civic Center Theater complex… a role that had disappeared in the early nineties.
After that change, CRC functioned as a more traditional arts council, managing a grants making program in Onondaga, Cortland and Oswego counties for the NYS Council on the Arts (NYSCA), but it also produced arts and culture offerings. The Board and I surmised these productions actually competed with constituents we needed to serve: arts, culture, and heritage entities that were providing their own quality cultural offerings. A sign we were on to something was that private support for the agency was very thin, while long term debt was high. The recession was a tipping point for the agency, eroding most of the remaining savings from prior decades.
Today, CNY Arts is a vital agency serving six plus counties, granting out over a million dollars annually for New York State and Onondaga County, building a strong network, and executing equally strong collaborative marketing mechanisms that benefit organizations, the general public, government, humans services, and education from kindergarten to college. We have just completed ENGAGE, a 12-month regional assessment , and created a 10-year Cultural Plan – in part informed by the monumental response of over 8,000 citizens to our surveys for the general public, individual artists, and arts, culture, and heritage organizations, plus 500 attendees of focus groups and regional summits. These tremendous data sets, coupled with expert research and planning, have given us all a roadmap for a brighter future in CNY.
How did we get here in just five years? Due to some hard work, some luck, and trust and support given by others, CNY Arts was able to take advantage of opportunities that occurred almost simultaneously:
• We let go of outdated business operations that, while perhaps beloved, no longer met constituents’ needs. This took two strategic plans, balancing the budget, and retiring all debt! This in turn cleared the way for new ventures as CNY Arts’ staff, board, and I were forging new relationships with stakeholders, working to develop trust, and building cooperation on strategic issues.
• A consortium of local funders, led by Kathy Goldfarb-Findling at the Gifford Foundation, launched a new research and implementation project called IDEAS (The Initiative to Develop and Engage Audiences in Syracuse). Their project consultant recommended that the arts council step up and take a leadership role. The arts, culture, and heritage groups – stakeholders who had participated in the research – validated this recommendation.
• NYSCA asked us to expand our services to three more counties (Madison, Oneida, and Herkimer) for a total of six. We renamed the agency to CNY Arts to reflect these changes.
• The Arts and Culture Leadership Alliance proposed that CNY Arts administer Onondaga County arts funding.
With IDEAS underway in Onondaga County, CNY Arts sought and received a grant from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council that allowed us to develop ENGAGE – conducting audience participation strategies and a regional assessment that was used to create a cultural plan for the benefit of all residents.
How does everyone benefit? Because arts, culture, and history bring us together in ways that span ethnicity, age, and gender. The arts express our values as a community. A vibrant cultural sector fosters creativity and innovation, attracting and retaining a talented workforce. A region shaped by its history and heritage inspires residents, attracts visitors, and drives tourism. These statements were validated again and again by those responding to the survey or in focus groups and in our research.
With the Cultural Plan we have an opportunity to help rebrand our region as a cultural tourism destination, engage our communities and business leaders through Main Street, downtown, and rural revitalization projects while strengthening the fabric of our community through generating revenue, expanded arts education, fostering dialogue, civic engagement, and enhancing cultural pride.
Today I am grateful to the IDEAS funders, the NYS Council on the Arts, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, and the County Legislature and its Chair Ryan McMahon, as well as Rob Simpson, Nancy Cantor, and the Regional Economic Development Council for the support and resources that have helped us to stretch and grow. Equally important are the relationships we have with our constituents and colleagues. Recently I presented the Cultural Plan at the NYS Council on the Arts; one program director attending said that the presentation made her feel hopeful, and that she could really see the potential for our region. We hope others do, too! I invite you to take a look at ENGAGE by going to http://cnyarts.org/engagecny/plan. We’d love to hear from you about your ideas to make the Plan happen!