Changing the name to “New Paltz Cultural Arts Center” may be the first step Unison Arts Center takes toward its reinvention. Now in its 40th year, Unison is experiencing growing pains not unlike those shared by many organizations that have been around for a while. A name change was one of many ideas floated at a meeting held last week to discuss ways to press the reset button on Unison’s future. Changing its name, agrees program consultant Robert Bard, could redefine not only what Unison is, but who it’s for, perhaps encouraging those who see the organization as a private or separate entity to feel more ownership of a community cultural center.
“We have this town, New Paltz — a community full of artists and talented people and people interested in the arts — and we don’t have a cultural arts community center,” says Bard. “That’s what I think Unison needs to become; it needs to belong to the people of New Paltz. Unison blends into the background now and people who have lived here for years literally do not know we are here. If we don’t rebrand ourselves and take what is great about this place and come up with a mission that will excite people, none of the rest of it matters.”
Bard was one of some 30 people who took part in the conversation last week at Unison. Several more such meetings will be held in the months to come, with dates yet to be determined. The board of directors plans to devote much of the remainder of 2016 to working with the membership and community at large to develop a new, more sustainable business model. Unison will continue to offer classes and workshops as well as reduced programming while they recalibrate. In order to reduce Unison’s financial burden in the meantime, they’ve suspended the paid position of executive director, with the most recent board president, Howard Sachar, stepping in temporarily as interim executive director.
Sachar, too, says he’s “completely in favor of a name change,” but believes the most pressing need for Unison right now is the acquisition of more board members. “We’re having an energy crisis. We need to infuse the organization with new people and new energy.” The Unison board numbers just four people at present, with three the minimum allowed a nonprofit by the state. Eight board members would be desirable, with ten or 12 even better, Sachar says. “Certainly we want quality over quantity, but we do need numbers; a core of strong, energetic people who are committed and have the time and energy.”
To function the way they should, he adds, Unison needs three elements all working cooperatively: a newly energized board, a new executive director with passion and vision and a proactive set of volunteers.
Stuart Bigley is the founder of Unison and its original executive director. While retired from that role, he’s still involved with the Center, curating the shows in the sculpture garden and volunteering where needed. Unison has had its high points and low points over the years, he says, but recently has been operating on a bit of a plateau.
Bigley says he’d like to see the organization partner with SUNY New Paltz again. “I’d like to see us reconnect with the art program at the college. In past years we’ve had use of the theaters for some of our larger performances, and it was good for the college and good for Unison. There was a point where their program had been cut by the state, so when we came to them offering very high quality performances, they were willing to co-sponsor. They basically gave us the space and promoted it on campus, and we promoted it in our literature. Having a space at the college would give us the ability to have our under-100-seat performances here and a 750-seat performance at Studley Theater and a 350-seat performance at McKenna. The flexibility would be a good plus.”
Renaming Unison is a good idea, says Bigley. “It could wake something up.” As to whether Unison (or a newly named New Paltz Cultural Arts Center) plans to move from the long-time location at 68 Mountain Rest Road, he says that if the organization can “get its act together,” he doesn’t see any reason why they should have to move. Are they in any danger of closing altogether? “That’s always out there with any nonprofit or arts organization,” he says, “but we’re not ready to let it go.”
Tying in with social media more effectively is another of the suggestions made to rebrand Unison. “I think that’s a good fit here,” says past board president and ongoing Unison volunteer Bruce Pileggi. “If you make this a place where people want to gather, and use social media to say, ‘You’ve got to see this show,’ ‘You’ve got to see this performance,’ that’s one avenue to explore to make it more current.”
Another initiative proposed involves Unison expanding its liaisons with other arts organizations in the area. “We need to network with other groups out there,” says Pileggi, “so we become the locus, and we’re not isolated. We’re talking about more than a name change; it’s a change of the mission. It can’t be more of the same; it has to have a rebirth. What is Unison to the community? We know what it was, and it was wonderful, but nothing can stay the same. And change is good.”
“But it’s not that we have to catch up with the millenials,” says Howard Sachar. “We have to find a way to make people feel comfortable here in a way that they don’t feel elsewhere. I think there is a desire for community; doing something with other people. And it’s not about ‘going out,’ I would argue. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have to do wonderful programming, and all these things, but you have to offer that something else. It has to mean something more to people than any individual thing. And that something else is what enables you to make this go on.”
Unison’s 40th anniversary this year will be marked with some type of gala event. “Throughout all this soul searching we intend to have a celebration,” Sachar says. “We’re still trying to figure out the shape of it, but the expectation is that it will be in the fall. We’ll celebrate the memories and the good times, and we also hope we’ll celebrate the future.”