Over the past few years, it seemed at times that Unison Arts Center might have to close its doors. Like any longtime organization, Unison has faced a number of challenges in remaining viable, including a recent shortage of active board members, a changing local population and economic downturns. Facilities need repair and maintenance, debt builds up and even complacency can take a toll. After all, when a cultural organization has been a fixture in town for more than 40 years, it’s easy to take it for granted. But through it all, again and again, Unison has managed to be like the Energizer Bunny: it just keeps going.
And thriving, apparently, these days, with a healthy nine-member board of directors now led by new executive director Alexandra Baer. Unison is currently busy planning its strategy to revitalize its schedule of cultural programs and performance events, blending the best of what has been “traditionally Unison,” Baer says, with new offerings. “We’re spending a lot of time looking at what the community wants and what they need. We’re a community organization, and that’s who I want to listen to.”
In terms of old favorites, plans are in the works to bring back the popular classical guitar series this fall. The twice-weekly life drawing sessions will continue — as will the winter holiday craft fair — and the sculpture garden is going to be spruced up this spring.
New on the horizon are more classes for kids, including an eight-week afterschool session for ages 10-14 on working with clay, taught by Baer, herself an accomplished sculptor. School buses from the district will drop kids off right at Unison.
With dance in the new director’s background, as well, she’s planning more dance and movement classes for adults. Currently Baer is collaborating with Broadway performer and choreographer Joe Langworth and recent SUNY New Paltz grad and choreographer Maria Coppola on a series of musical theater intensive workshops. There are also a variety of international dance fusion classes in the works to be taught by Anna Mayta, who is starting a dance company that will headquarter at Unison, joining current classes in African dance, Israeli folk dancing and contemporary ballet.
The focus on visual arts at the center will include gallery events, with the possibility of artists exhibiting at Unison being able to sell their work online through the website. A wine and cheese reception will be held this Sunday, February 25 from 4-6 p.m. to open the new exhibit, “Contemporary Realism,” featuring the work of Bruce Bundock, Les Castellanos, Marsha Messih and John A. Varriano.
Upcoming concert and music events include an appearance by The Spirit Brothers on Sunday, March 11 at 11 a.m., who raise their audience’s spirits with chants from traditions that include Sanskrit Kirtan, Native America, Sufi and ancient Christian, and an evening with Marc Black on April 7 at 7 p.m., reviewing history through the lens of the popular music of the 1950s and ’60s.
Baer officially took the helm as executive director at Unison on September 1. A longtime resident of New Paltz, she lives “around the corner” from the art center with her husband, Guy Barroihlet and their daughter, Samantha, 11. Having a child in the school system helps in knowing what local families are looking for, she notes, and it inspired a connection with the Maya Gold Foundation, to which Unison plans to donate a percentage of profits from events. “I’m amazed by how much they’ve accomplished, and all they do for New Paltz kids. They’re doing such important work, and Unison is going to support them in any way we can. It’s important for us to do that as part of the community.”
Unison would also like to foster a greater connection with SUNY New Paltz. “We’re really trying to work with the college, too, and connect with them to see if we can’t do some things together. We have access to the theaters on campus, and we’d like to expand some of our music events and have them happen there, as well. The college is such a big part of what makes New Paltz tick.”
Baer was most recently employed by Mill Street Loft in Poughkeepsie as director of outreach for Latino and African-American communities in the area, and she taught sculpture in the Art Institute there. Prior to that, Baer ran her own commercial sculpture studio and bronze casting foundry in Wallkill, producing her own work and casting works for other artists.
For a full list of classes and events at Unison, check out the newly redesigned website at https://www.unisonarts.org/. Details will be posted when available about a big gala fundraiser planned for Sunday, June 3 to celebrate the 75th birthday of Unison founder, Stuart Bigley, who is on the current board as president. The evening of dinner and dancing will be called “The Magic of Unison” and feature magician Mark Mitton and music by Big Joe Fitz & the Lo-Fis. An art exhibit will highlight Bigley’s art work alongside Baer’s, juxtaposing work by the original director of Unison with work by its current director.
And about that community feedback; keep it coming, Baer says. “I love getting e-mails with ideas; I’m an idea person. Let us know what you want: What things do you find exciting? What are you looking for?” (Ideas may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And while membership isn’t necessary to avail oneself of what Unison has to offer, it does come with perks: each membership ($50) includes two free tickets to an event and discounts on classes.