Back in November, Unison Arts and Learning Center announced that it was coming to the end of its nearly-four-decade-long tenure at 68 Mountain Rest Road. The not-for-profit’s lease with landlords and founders Stuart and Helene Bigley was set to expire on December 31, and a move to an unspecified office space in the village was planned for January. After that, Unison would become more or less a virtual organization, with no performance, classroom or exhibition space of its own, renting stages for performances on a piecemeal basis as needed. Executive director Christine Crawfis, who had not drawn a paycheck in months, and longtime staff member Kitty Brown made their official farewells.
A funny thing happened on the way to closing the facility. Longtime supporters jammed the Unison theater space at the November board meeting, clamoring for a way to keep the organization alive at its accustomed site, arguing that over the years it had become a vital nexus for creativity and community that would not likely survive the loss of a home base.
A slate of new candidates committed to finding new ways to address the organization’s persistent financial shortfalls and to stay on at 68 Mountain Rest swept the end-of-year board elections, and the decision to vacate was rescinded. The new Unison board consisting of president Howard Sachar, treasurer Amos Newcombe, William Connors, Joseph Ferri and Pascal Guirma hit the ground running. They immediately initiated a search for a new executive director, and by mid-March had hired Heather Ohlson to fill that post.
“We’re alive and kicking and feeling optimistic,” Sachar said. “We have 17 to 20 performances planned just for this spring. And we’re in no way shortchanging the quality of performances and services.”
“A lot has happened in a very short amount of time,” said Ohlson, whose professional background is in virtual education and community organizing. “Our biggest goal was the idea of staying in this location. But we started off with an effort to beautify and renovate the performance space.”
Leaks in the roof and mold in the ceiling have been remediated, the theater’s worn hardwood floor has been sanded and resealed, its walls and ceiling repainted and its lighting updated. The space looks fresh and bright, setting off the current exhibition of paintings by Maxine Davidowitz and Deirdre Leber.
Another particularly thorny, long-running infrastructure issue is also finally being addressed: the facility’s well water had not been tested in years. As a result, the county health department had refused to renew Unison’s certification to host Wayfinder Experience day camps, costing the organization an important annual revenue stream. Test results are expected back within the next week or so. “If there’s a problem, we’re going to size up what it will cost to fix it,” Sachar said.
How are these costly improvements possible, if the organization was already tens of thousands of dollars in the red? “It’s no secret that there have been financial struggles here,” said Sachar. “The board has made a commitment to stay here through 2015. We’ve closed some of the financial gaps. And three of our first four shows sold out: Susan Werner, Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub and the Claire Lynch Band.”
While there has not been a huge spike in donations, the local business supporters known as Arts Partners have stepped up to the plate to sponsor individual concerts in response to the general sense of emergency, and an anonymous donor has put up a matching grant for new membership signups. “We’re gearing up a campaign to get more grant funding,” said Sachar. Ohlson noted her considerable fundraising experience as president of the Kingston Library’s board of directors.
“Another difference is that we have a greater reliance on high-functioning volunteers,” Sachar added. “People have come forward and taken on significant responsibilities, and they’re not just board members.” Relationship-building, diversifying collaborations and maintaining a sense of community are themes that keep recurring as the new president and executive director map out their game plan for 2015.
Part of Unison’s past struggles have reflected an aging audience base, a trend experienced by many not-for-profits founded in the 1960s and 1970s. Sachar quoted one longtime supporter as observing that “70 percent of the heads in our audience are grey, and the other 30 percent are bald.” The Unison theater space, with its live, bouncy acoustics, is not accommodating to amplified music, so the acts featured there lean toward the folk, jazz, world music and classical spectrum. Sachar doesn’t see transient college students as the core demographic needed to secure Unison’s future in any case. He’s targeting young families moving into the area, with parents in their 30s and 40s, as the next members to be drawn into the Unison community.
He hopes to reach them by bolstering programs for children, both performances and classes. Currently on offer are several classes for kids. Live wildlife shows have long been a Unison staple, and the place is experimenting with doubling up daytime shows for kids with evening concerts for adults by the same performer, as was done with the Wiyos in April. Ramped-up kids’ programming is slated for the fall.
Cinema buffs are another new audience in the new management’s sights. Sachar believes that it doesn’t make sense for Unison to try to compete with Upstate Films, the Rosendale Theatre and the Downing Film Center by showing art-circuit films. It envisages instead a series of high-quality, low-budget alternative works of more specialized interest, including films made locally. “Our aspiration is a small audience, in the 40 to 50 range.”
A trial screening in April of works made by SUNY-New Paltz media program students drew “people who don’t look to me like our normal audience,” he noted. Dance enthusiasts are another untapped market whom Unison is trying to reach, with Nina Jirka offering tango lesson and demonstrations geared to beginners.
Can Unison maintain this new momentum and refreshed sense of purpose beyond 2015? That depends on many variables, including the success of negotiations with the Bigleys (and the town planning board) for acquisition or subdivision of the property, which matter Sachar projected would be resolved by the fall.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of ways to support its continuing success: by attending the annual barn sale on May 23; by buying tickets for a concert or taking a workshop; or by becoming a member and taking advantage of those matching funds. Celebrating Unison’s fortieth year in the foothills of the Gunks seems like such a modest goal. Why not prepare for 50?