Unison Arts Center has been at the heart of the New Paltz cultural scene since 1976. Through highs and lows the organization has always managed somehow to rebound and keep going. But this may not be one of those times: Unison has arrived at an impasse, lacking a sufficient number of people willing to form the new board of directors it needs to continue operating. And without that, says interim executive director Howard Sachar, Unison’s 40th anniversary celebration later this year will be their swan song.
“We’ve had two community meetings about going forward, and there have been a lot of good ideas and a lot of enthusiasm,” he says. “What we have not had is a set of people ready to come forward and create a new board, and that’s essential. If we fail to do that, we’re going to have to go into hibernation at the end of the year.”
While a number of people attended the meetings held recently to discuss a new business model for Unison’s future, the suggestions suffered from a “pronoun crisis,” says Sachar. “Everybody was saying ‘one’ could do this or ‘you’ could do that, or ‘someone could,’ but that’s really where the problem is. It has to be someone willing to say ‘I’ and if we don’t get that, we have a real problem. Unless we can get some new blood and new energy, I think we’re winding down. This is the state we’re in, and this is our plea to people that if there’s anybody out there, now is the time to stand up.”
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. In order to reduce their financial burden, Unison temporarily suspended the paid position of executive director. Sachar, who is one of the current four board members, stepped in to fill the role for the short term.
Stuart Bigley, the founder of Unison, is retired from a leadership role in the organization but still helps out where needed. “The current board is willing to stay involved through the end of the year,” he says, “but they’re not willing to carry it beyond that. Our board of directors has done such a great job in really showing the possible sustainability of the organization, but in the process they’ve kind of burned themselves out. What we need now to keep going is an influx from the community.”
Unison will retain its nonprofit status for the time being. “It is possible that a future can happen,” says Bigley. “And if Unison can get back on its feet, with a board of directors in place, then the position of executive director would become a paid position again. An organization like this can’t be sustainable without having a paid executive director and probably one other paid staffer; that would be the minimum to run anything like what people are used to as Unison, with a series of concerts, and workshops and programs. It takes at least two people in the office to successfully make that happen.”
But it’s the board of directors who hires the executive director, and without volunteers from the community to fill those seats on the board, Unison will celebrate the memories and the good times this fall at a 40th anniversary celebration, and then “go quiet” at the end of this year, says Sachar.