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Steve Butler on The Campbell Conversations

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CNY Arts Executive Director Steve Butler, left, speaks with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

Through its Engage CNY initiative, the non-profit organization CNY Arts has recently completed a thorough inventory and survey of the arts, and of citizens' views and preferences about arts and culture in the Central New York region.  In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Stephen Butler, the executive director of CNY Arts, about the findings, and about the plan that has been developed in light of them.  They also discuss the Syracuse Symphony and the Everson Museum.

Grant Reeher (GR):  Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. My guest today is Steven Butler, the Executive Director if CNY Arts. The organization has been leading the Engage CNY Initiative concerning arts and culture in the region, and a plan based on that work has recently been released. Steven, welcome to the program.

Steven Butler (SB): Thanks so much for having me.

GR: Give me a quick overview of CNY Arts as an organization.

SB: CNY Arts is a regional arts council that’s an art service organization, and we function as kind of a trade association for arts, culture, history and heritage groups in the six counties that we are contracted by in the State of New York to serve--those include Oswego, Onondaga, Cortland, Oneida, Madison and Herkimer.

GR: How are you funded?

SB: We are funded through government funds, private donations, and also earned income, as well as corporate philanthropy.

GR: What was the point of the Engage CNY initiative, and how did it go about trying to achieve it?

SB: The point of the Engaged CNY initiative was to do an assessment of the six counties, and that was because the State of New York had given us – three of those six counties were brand new to CNY Arts.  So we thought we’d do a regional assessment, and as long as we are going to do that, why not go full throttle and create a cultural plan?

GR: What kinds of data did you collect? How did you go about getting it?

SB: We collected data from three sources:  the general public; arts, culture, history and heritage organizations; and individual artists.  We used a variety of mechanisms. There was a general public survey that was online, and there were hard copies of that as well in places we didn’t think people were getting online, and there were versions of that in Spanish.

We created a leadership advisory council of community leaders whom we asked to push the survey out in the six counties, and we incentivized the survey with gift cards to dollar stores, gas stations, and grocery stores.  We really wanted to get a wide breadth of the population, not just vested stakeholders who tend to go to a lot of arts and cultural events anyway.  We did at least fifty focus groups, over five hundred stakeholders, and we did a large summit at the Hancock Regional Airport with a lot of community leaders--mayors and government departments of community planning  to look at the data once we had put it together.

GR: What was the most important thing that you learned from all this information?

SB: There are no silver bullets, that everything is going to be solved if we have this one brilliant strategy. I think the incredible response rate talks about the high level of interest in arts and entertainment in the region, and that is very gratifying.  We came away with of a couple of big themes. One is that while over 80 percent of the public highly values arts and entertainment, and close to 60 percent feel that finding out information about how to get to arts and cultural offerings should be easy to find or is easy to find, when you ask, “how much do you really know about what is going on?”, only 27 percent say I really know a lot.  There is a kind of disconnect there. The other thing is that as you look at age and ethnicity and education particularly--not so much income--you see disparities at how people’s values are being represented in this kind of region, as to how they rank things in terms of excellence.

GR: Could you say a little bit more about that last point? What were some of those disparities?

SB: If you look at white populations, over 20 percent felt that the arts and culture heritage offerings were excellent. But only 10 percent of those in ethnic minorities felt it was excellent. And then as you went down the line--good, ok, no opinion, bad - those percentages inverted as well.  And that was true for people under 35 as well as people who had less to no education beyond high school.

GR: Was there something in all of these findings that really surprised you?

SB: The top priority listed by the arts and culture organizations that filled out their survey was that they want to collaboratively market. That is not something we would have heard five, six, seven years ago.  They are actually seeing the strength in their numbers. We discovered that there are over 1600 individual artists that file taxes stating that some of their income is derived through arts-making, and we found over 700 websites of cultural entities that are providing some kind of cultural offering in the six counties. That’s quite a bit of cultural activity going on in our region.

GR: One of the things that caught my eye in your press release was the finding that folks in the focus groups said that arts and culture create bridges between races and classes. That notion of creating bridges between classes and races doesn’t always come to mind regarding all the arts.  Tell me more about those discussions and what you were taking from them.

SB: The survey was aspirational. What do you think art should do? People did believe that arts and culture is a great bridge-builder in terms of class and ethnicity, but we also heard a lot of stories about people feeling somewhat excluded from what is being offered. And we heard a lot of stories about people saying that they did not feel that they knew where to go to find out what was being offered. So it suggests a two-pronged strategy, which is to increase awareness, but also to look at relevance in terms of what is being produced and how it can meet these aspirations.

GR: Was there one finding that worried you the most?

SB: My greatest concern was that a third of those surveyed told us that they had no marketing dollars, and they did not have marketing staff in their operation. How do you market your offerings if you don’t have the resources or the staff to make that happen? And I think it speaks to how much work we need to do to build the capacity of this industry.

GR:  You’ve released your cultural plan.  What are its main points?

SB: One of the first thrusts is to increase the size of the network. Collectively, between the individual artists and the art, culture and heritage organizations, we are a pretty important industry to Upstate New York, because we don’t have 50,000 employees at factories anymore. If we can start working collectively as an industry, then so much the better for us. That starts with coordination, so we have to gather these forces together to begin creating these networks, so that this work can begin to be done.

GR: What’s going to put teeth in the plan to make it get traction?

SB: Implementation requires resources, and I think that when plans are developed there is a sort of feeling in the air like, let’s wait and see what they do. We have already begun to raise some funds for pieces of the plan.  And we also have money from the Regional Economic Development Council to advertise the social marketing system in the six counties, as well as Cayuga. I think as we build resources, others will come back to the table who are very engaged in this process.

GR: Was there any conversation at the summit or at some other stage with the bigger stakeholders about the possibility of the arts becoming the trademark for the region? That this area begins to brand itself in part on the arts and culture in the way that perhaps Burlington, Vermont has done?

SB: I think that was very much part of the conversation.  They do believe that the rich array of cultural opportunities is part of the rebranding that the region should engage in for cultural tourism, as well as a tool to recruit a workforce and companies to central New York.

GR: Anytime anyone talks about investing more in the arts it necessarily brings up the issue of tradeoffs between arts and other kinds of public investments. Do the surveys or focus groups give us any new ways to think about that?

SB: We didn’t have those kinds of conversations.  The kinds of conversations we did have with the mayors was how could arts and culture help us revitalize our downtowns, re-infuse our main streets, whether rural, suburban or urban. And is there a way to create opportunities for young people who are in the arts to stay here, through micro business loans or creating art studios with living space that is affordable or subsidized in some way? So that when they are coming out of these arts programs they stay in the area, and they are very innovative and entrepreneurial, and are creating wonderful art.

GR: Have you been pleased with how things have turned out so far with the new symphony?

SB: I’ve been very pleased with their development. They are clearly still in start-up, but have met a lot of their benchmarks in terms of subscription sales and individual donations. They are playing a full season and they are employing people, and the reviews are generally good.  I think they have come an amazing distance in less than two years. They have a wonderful new executive director.  They have just hired a musical director, so that’s a real success story as of right now.

GR: Do you have any worries for them at this point going forward?

SB: Well I have worries for all of our large arts, culture and heritage institutions because I think the rebound, if you want to call it that, coming out of the recession, has definitely affected everyone’s capacity. I think budgets are more constrained.

GR: Your organization has been given a role in this rebirthing process for the symphony. Could you say a little bit about that?

SB: At the time the former symphony went bankrupt, the musical instruments were collateralized on the loan, and M&T Bank graciously gave those to the community through a restricted gift to CNY Arts, so that they would always be available.  When the new symphony formed these instruments were there.  We were also asked by the County to some extent to help with the start-up of the symphony. And we’ve worked with the symphony to this day.

GR: Another cultural asset that has been in the news a lot in the last year the Everson Art Museum, with its financial struggles.  How do you see that playing out in the future?

SB: The Everson has a tremendous number of assets.  I was sorry that the exhibits had to be cancelled and that too might have been about marketing--whether they could sell enough tickets to afford those exhibits. A lot of this is marketing, outreach and promotion.

They had received I think a year ago a rather large Luce grant to digitize their ceramics collection, which is extraordinary. It is the cornerstone of the museum and I think they are mounting a new exhibit about that, and I think that that ceramics are being made available through a digital process that they can be lent out. I think I would like to hear more about that from them. I think this is part of the wave of their future and I think it will put them in good status—an income generator and an interest in their permanent collections.

GR: Where can our listeners go to read the cultural plan?

SB: If you go to www.cnyarts.org there is a button on the first page of that website that says Engage CNY, and you just push that and it will take you to the full plan as well as a lot of snapshots and a plethora of data.

GR: Let me ask the three questions, and as we sometimes do with folks who have already been on the program, I would like you to answer them from a different perspective than your own life. So, not your own life but in this case from the perspective of the life of the arts in Central New York. So, the first question is what’s the title of the chapter of life for the arts in this region?

SB: I think this chapter is called rebound.

GR: What is the worst trait of the arts culture here?

SB: That there is a silver bullet--if I just had that 50,000 dollars in my budget, everything would be solved.

GR: And finally, what achievement of the arts culture here has surprised you the most?

SB: I think that the Central New York arts and culture group has been so remarkably flexible. When they turned over their mailing lists to begin this research several years ago, I saw a great sea change, as they focused the programming to a certain extent on what is culturally valuable and exciting. I think that’s a big shift in their mindset, and the resiliency and their adaptability just continue to amaze me.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.