In four years, the Center for the Arts of Homer achieved what every bumbling planner who set foot inside Mizpah Towers could not: They took an old church building, vacated by a Baptist congregation, and resurrected it into a vibrant culture club in the middle of town. Meanwhile, Montgomery Street’s eyesore stands, vacant and cold as a tomb, until it will likely meet the fate of many forsaken Syracuse structures—a date with a wrecking ball.
But this story isn’t about another great idea gone nowhere in the Salt City. It’s about a group of arts-focused citizens in a charming Cortland County village breathing new life into an 1893 brick church with iridescent stained-glass windows, honey-hued woodwork and perfect acoustics. Less than five years into the enterprise, the $500,000 mortgage is completely paid off.
Armed with a vision for the structure, a board of directors held the center’s first public event in November 2001 (a performance by Cortland saxophonist Charlie Bertini), achieved nonprofit status in 2003 and hired Daniel Hayes as its executive director in 2005. Hayes, a native of Nitro, W.Va., knows folk music: In 1993 he founded the 60-seat Night Eagle Cafe in Oxford. It attracted some of the finest up-and-coming folk music talent in the country.
He made his money working on Walter Mondale’s doomed 1984 presidential quest to unseat Ronald Reagan. “So I bought 100 acres in Smithfield Flats, built a house there and, at the age of 26, was going to do my Hemingway thing. I was going to write the Great American Novel, to die, alone, in the rain.”
Eighteen months later, Hayes took a job with Don’t Waste New York, which successfully convinced then-Gov. Mario Cuomo not to bury the state’s nuclear waste. “After all that was done, I had to do something easy on my brain, something sweet. So I decided to open a coffeehouse and an art gallery, and two years later I became nationally recognized; unbeknownst to me I saved folk music in the Northeast. Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, Penn.; Club Passim in Boston; Caffe Lena in Saratoga; and the Night Eagle. It created a loop. Someone could come to the Northeast, play Pennsylvania, Boston, Saratoga, Oxford and leave. I had no idea that’s what I was doing. I was just trying to have a coffeehouse and an art gallery and listen to music.”
Homer improvement: The conversion of the former First Baptist Church of Homer (below) into an art center began in 2003 and continued with the 2005 hiring of Daniel Hayes as its executive director (above). MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Now Hayes does that on a grander scale. Affordable and accessible, the Center for the Arts, 72 S. Main St., Homer, strives to provide programming for everyone. And that includes more than musical performances. Inside the structure is a professional dance studio, a community room, an art gallery and studio, meeting space, a kitchen and a classroom for a preschool program. “I’m constantly renting the space for weddings, corporate parties, sweet 16s, training meetings and luncheons. The red hatters will come in and do a luncheon here. We have catering available.” Dessert, coffee, tea, beer and wine are available after every performance.
The first musical act Hayes booked to perform in the center’s 400-seat Whiting Theater (formerly the sanctuary) was the Glengarry Bhoys. “They close out every season for me,” Hayes notes. “I consider them my house band.” The center’s first season saw the likes of Richie Havens and Janis Ian; last season, it was Arlo Guthrie and Dougie MacLean. The spring lineup gets under way this Saturday, Jan. 30, with a return engagement by Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul.
“Eileen Ivers performs for the Queen of England, for presidents of the United States, in front of the National Symphony of London, and she’s going to be here Saturday,” Hayes says. “Last year, when she was here, I had a patron come up to me and say, ‘I spent $65 to see her from 300 feet away at the Kennedy Center, and I’m paying $25 to see her here?’”
Still, Hayes, 49, realizes there’s a core of cultural organizations in Cortland County, and he’s happy to work with them. The center’s programming goes dark in the summer so as to not compete with the likes of Cortland Repertory Theatre, the Downtown Cortland music series and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“There are a lot of organizations in the surrounding area that survive off of that very short window we call summer,” he says. “We want to be the good guys. We want to be the premier presenting center for upstate New York. We’re going to be that place but we’re also going to take the summer off so all of those other organizations can then make their money. We never want to do anything that will take anything away from those organizations.”
Hayes, however, stays busy year-round, and his dedication to the center shows in how successful it has been in a mere 4½ years. “It’s nonprofit arts, it’s a nightmare, nobody’s going to get rich,” he shrugs. “We do this, I don’t know, because this is how we’re going to get into heaven, I guess. It’s my way of doing for the community what it has done for me.”
Q: How long have you been in this position?
A: Since the first day. They had a large search for an executive director. One of the perks was they have a parsonage house here that would be available, rent-free, for the executive director. They had people applying from all over the country. It was a sweet deal: a startup operation, you get to do what you feel is the best way to direct it, and you get a house. So there was a lot of competition for the position.
They had hired a corporation to do a utilization study on what it would take to turn a church into an arts center, and the various things that would happen. And in that study they used an example of an organization from a startup and what it did and the way it became famous, and the organization they used was my coffeehouse, unbeknownst to me. So I think that gave me a bit of an edge.
I was the only employee for the first 3½ years—chief cook and bottle washer. I was doing everything. I was and am responsible for all the rental spaces, day-to-day operations, I write grants, I go out and do community talks up and down New York state, on tourism on how to run arts centers, what communities need, how to build communities, and some of the things we’ve done here.
In May 2005 they hired me as a consultant to get things going and then on June 9 when we closed on the property I officially became the executive director. There were a lot of things we tried to do and did succeed in.
There was no Head Start in Homer, they were busing the kids outside the town. We brought Head Start in here. And now, five years later, all of Head Start’s administrative offices are here. We are the hub for Cortland County.
We spent $14,000 on a professional spring-loaded dance floor to bring in the Cortland City Ballet but also dance classes. We now offer jazz, ballet, Chinese ballet, Scottish highland dancing, Irish step dancing, belly dancing, ballroom dancing. And we do what we can to make it as cost-effective for the instructors are possible. I have a standing rule of $1 per student per class. If you want to come here and create a class I’m not going to charge you $50 an hour; if you’ve got three students I’m going to charge you $3.
Among the world-renowned performers who have played there is Eileen Ivers, who returns this Saturday.
Q: With the Earlville Opera House and Smith Opera House fairly nearby, is it difficult to compete with them?
A: I try not to compete with anybody. I created the Night Eagle in Oxford in 1993 as a nonprofit, cultural presenting center, closed it and sold it as a for-profit. The new owners moved it to Binghamton and it folded.
In 1995, Eutaw Phillips and Fast Folk magazine did a survey of coffeehouses and small presenting centers in North America and they gave five stars to three places on the continent, and I was one of them and it made me famous. At the time, performers who were doing 1,500- to 2,500-seat theaters were coming to play for me in front of 60 people.
At that point I was working with New York State Council on the Arts to try to figure out a way we could all work together without stepping on anybody’s toes and without doing any sort of contrary bookings.
Most of my shows, maybe 60 percent of the people that come live within 50 miles of the center; 40 percent come from elsewhere—Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan. I’ll get phone calls from people saying they see that someone they love is playing here and I only have 400 seats. Is it possible to still get tickets? We don’t ever sell out.
A: We have come close several times, but it’s a church, we have pews. I’m fire-coded for over 500 people, but I always say we have 400 seats because we have pews and you want to be comfortable in a pew. When you’re coming to a performance here I really want you to enjoy it. At 400 seats, we’re packed, but I can always throw up a few extra chairs, I can always squeeze in a few extra people.
The most I’ve ever had here for a performance was Eileen Ivers, last year. We had 470 people for that performance. Arlo Guthrie and his entire family brought in 420. Richie Havens, Janis Ian, Spyro Gyra bring in maybe 400 to 415.
Q: Is there a certain type of act you’re looking to book?
A: Not really. I look at my season from September to June as like a large party, and how I would start it off at 7 in the evening, and the music that I would play until 1 or 2 in the morning—1 or 2 in the morning being June. I want to bring in as much of an eclectic mix as I can without it being contrary or clashing. I’m never gonna put three shows in a row that are going to be the same or are going to be so different that it just doesn’t make sense that you wouldn’t want to go see. And I also try to keep our ticket prices to where anybody could come see every show. Two people could see every show for less than $700; that’s 17 shows over the course of nine months.
And I want to be able to take the music that we bring here and let people who would normally not see it, college students or kids, and try to make it easy for families. So if you’re a couple and you’ve got four kids, you’re never going to be able to take them all anywhere without spending a couple hundred dollars. However, you could bring them here, buy two tickets and all the kids under the age of 18 are free, for most shows. With a valid ID, college students are $10.
I want kids who are 20 and who are 12 to come here and experience something they’re not likely to experience. You listen to the radio today and it’s the same 15 songs, over and over and over again. There’s something more out there than Hannah Montana. There really is. If you bring them the art and the culture, even you bring them kicking and screaming, they’re going to come out very happy.
Q: Is there someone you wanted to bring here that you haven’t been able to?
A: There’s quite a few I just can’t afford. I would love to have Keb’Mo play here. I would love to have Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett do a show here. One of my ideas is I want to be a testing ground. I want to create this night where we end up being a place where a major act is about to go on tour and they want some place to test out a show.
I’d like to call it, say, Wild Card Thursday, announce that we’ve got jazz. And it would be one of those things where you’d get a week to 24 hours of a heads-up, you’d be on a list, and you come in. The next day you’d run into somebody and say, “Man, I went to the center last night because they had jazz and it was Herbie Hancock. Who knew Herbie Hancock would ever play there?” And then Herbie Hancock goes off and does his national tour after working out the bugs here.
Q: How likely is that?
A: I believe I can do anything, so it’s very likely, actually.
Q: Have you seen in the 4½ years an increase in ticket sales? And I don’t mean in any way to disrespect your first year of acts but have you been able to attract a higher caliber of musician?
A: Actually, when I had the coffeehouse a lot of the performers who used to come play for me back in the ’90s were really unknown. I would find and discover unknowns and bring them in. I did 110 performances a year; every Friday and Saturday night and then two shows on Sunday, and I did that almost 50 weeks a year. I would do only one or two performances a month by somebody anybody knew. I was working with agencies who were all starting out, so we kind of grew up together.
That’s how I started getting people like Eutaw Phillips, Dar Williams, Martin Sexton; they’d stop in and play the Night Eagle because they wanted the Night Eagle on their resume. I got to launch a bunch of careers for folks. Back then I’d give them $100 just to show up. Now they’re getting $50,000 for walking in the door. They’re writing all the music for movies in Hollywood.
By the time I took this job in 2005, a lot of the people who were showing up to play for me then, I’d say, “Look if nobody comes, I’ll pay you 100 bucks, I’ll put you up some place, I’ll tell you your music’s really good and tell you one day you’re going to be famous.” And, guess what? They’re now really famous. All I did here was call up my old friends and say, “Hey, I’m back but I have 400 seats now and not 60.” Our first season, Richie Havens showed up and played Homer. Janis Ian played Homer. All I did was call up my friends.
Gallery talk: Daniel Hayes converted formerly unusable space into this bright and airy gallery, to which Borg Warner donated $50,000 for naming rights. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Q: Tell me about the art gallery.
A: I’d had the job for about a week and I noticed this room, that you couldn’t tell was one big room. It looked like this little space and then a smaller room and bigger room and a kitchen. I thought, we can’t be an art center unless we have an art gallery. So I tore out doors, put in track lighting, covered shelves. I got an artist named Fred Zimmerman, a woodcut artist, and got his originals in there. I called up my board and said, we now have an art gallery. And they freaked: “We wanted to rent the room for $80 an hour!” But then Borg-Warner Morse Tec paid us $50,000 to name it for them, and suddenly it was the greatest idea.
I try to impress to my board that nobody, not even the Kennedy Center, makes money off performances. You make your money from sponsors. Ideally, the sponsor fees pay for the performers. We can stay broke forever, but we maintain it; we stay open.
Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul kicks off the winter/spring 2010 concert series with an 8 p.m. show on Saturday, Jan. 30. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for college students; under 18 is free. The art gallery is open Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m., by appointment, or “just drop in,” says Hayes, “and we’ll unlock the door.” To reserve tickets, for more information or to find out about the remainder of the lineup, call (607) 749-4900 or visit www.center4art.org.