Christine Crawfis steps down from Chamber of Commerce to take the helm at Unison Arts

Christine Crawfis. (photo by Rich Corozine)

Christine Crawfis has worn many hats since she first moved to New Paltz from Florida in 1991, accompanying her husband Bob Miller, who had landed a gig in the Communications Department at SUNY New Paltz. She worked for the American Craft Council — a job that required quite a bit of traveling — but gave that up in 2005 to bring her expertise in marketing and communications to the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce. Now it’s time for Crawfis to wrap that up and try on a new hat: that of executive director of the Unison Arts and Learning Center.

The relationship between Crawfis and Unison has been a long time brewing. In 1995, she and her husband co-founded a community theatre troupe that has gone on to become quite a fixture in the local cultural firmament: the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company (MMSC). For its first three years of existence, says Crawfis, MMSC was conceived of primarily as an incubator for “theatre for young audiences.” It was during this period that Unison founder and longtime executive director Stuart Bigley offered MMSC the use of Unison’s theatre as a rehearsal space. Friendships blossomed and Crawfis began doing volunteer work at Unison events, like its annual fundraising auction.

In 2005, Crawfis enhanced her professional credentials with a Master’s degree in non-profit management. “I began to have conversations with Stuart about Unison’s structure,” she says. Crawfis went on to write components of Unison’s annual fund campaign materials and became part of the brain trust that developed the organization’s 2008 Strategic Plan. Meanwhile, the evolving MMSC’s theatrical productions and staged readings became staples of Unison’s performance calendar.

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Early in 2011, Bigley announced his intention to step down from the directorship of Unison. He continued as artistic director until the end of that year, and still remains involved in Unison events and the committee that manages the facility’s Sculpture Garden. On Saturday, Sept. 29, Unison will devote much of its annual Tribute Night to honoring its founder.

Meanwhile, Carol Robins took the helm of the organization in March 2011, with full intent to make it a long-term commitment, but a stroke of unforeseen luck intervened. “Her separation from Unison was a surprise,” recounts Crawfis. “Carol and her husband had an opportunity to buy a piece of property and move to Maine, where they’d always wanted to retire eventually. The timing was just right, and the chips all fell in a particularly favorable way.”

So Robins’ tenure ended up lasting less than a year-and-a-half, and the search was on for a new executive director. Considering her marketing and communications chops in a tough era for not-for-profits, as well as the great connections with the local business community that she had forged in her years at the Chamber of Commerce, Crawfis was the obvious choice. “Because I know Unison, I know the players,” she says.

Unison has navigated some very challenging financial waters in recent years, partly due to reductions in arts funding from New York State and partly due to the fact that people hard-hit by the recession have to prioritize their spending in ways that often preclude evenings out to hear live music or theatre. Local support, whether through ticket sales, memberships or business sponsorships, have become more important than ever before as grant support shrinks. But the audiences who grew up with Unison since its founding in the 1970s and became the base of its membership have gone grey, and Crawfis is thinking about ways to draw in younger visitors as she eases into her new position.

“If our programming can be a really good reflection of the community we serve, that’s a really great goal,” she says. Noting that Unison’s past market research has mainly consisted of “surveys of people who attended programs,” she says that she now wants to reach out to non-members, including young people who are receiving fewer arts-related services from financially strapped school districts, as well as “people used to come to our programs, but stopped. What are we not doing? We need to be asking these questions of a wider constituency, so that we’re not only talking to ourselves.” Crawfis says that she wants to encourage people in the community to get in touch with her directly and let her know what direction they think Unison ought to take for the future.

“In order to reach out to younger audiences, we have to be accessible to them, as well as offer programming in which they’re interested,” she notes. Through Unison’s ongoing relationship with SUNY New Paltz, including Bob Miller’s perch in the Communications Department, the Arts Center has in recent years been presenting programs of student-produced videos, which Crawfis sees as one model for enhancing participation by young people. The popular “One Book/One New Paltz” discussion groups held at Unison are another, and she would like to see a series of “Sunday salons” organized with that template in mind.

Noting that Unison lacks visibility in downtown New Paltz, except for its small gallery at the Water Street Market, she anticipates that enhanced use of social media will be one useful tool to drive younger traffic to the arts and performance venue on the outskirts of town. “We’re already on Facebook and Foursquare,” she notes. “We have to reach different people in different ways, through diverse applications. They may be new technologies, but it’s all classic relationship-building.”

Among Crawfis’ top priorities for using modern communications technology are “reenvisioning” Unison’s website and implementing a Cloud-based software system called Patron Manager. The latter will not only enable people to purchase tickets online, but also provide marketing data analysis regarding what shows attract what audiences, how people find out about Unison shows and so on.

Noting that it has been nearly five years since Unison’s last Strategic Planning process, Crawfis sees the change of leadership as a key opportunity for reexamination of the organization’s mission, vision and values. “It’s important in this transition away from the founder to ask the hard questions,” she says. “We have to connect the community to the work of the organization, to reestablish that the need is still there.”

The first order of business, says Crawfis, is board development, to bring in some fresh blood to the planning process, and she will spend her first weeks in office communing with current board president Tom Nolan to strategize how to recruit new board members. A Programming Task Force that engages community members is also envisioned to plan future programs that are “affordable and compelling.” “It would be great to have a way for them to have input” on a regular basis, she says.

Luckily, before her departure, Robins solidified Unison’s schedule for the entire fall season, so Crawfis has a wee bit of breathing room. “That gives me a little time to do this exploration,” she says. “I’m a big proponent of planning — of doing my homework.” So if you’ve got some ideas about how Unison can stay vibrant, solvent and relevant in the years to come, now is the perfect time to shoot Crawfis an e-mail at christine@unisonarts.org. She really wants to know what you think!

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