Interview: Steven Butler
by Grant Reeher - Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
CNY Arts is a regional arts council that’s an art service organization

Steven Butler is executive director of CNY Arts, which provides support to artists and arts and cultural organizations. It has been leading the Engage CNY Initiative concerning arts and culture in the region, and a plan based on that work was recently released.

Grant Reeher (GR): Give me a quick overview of CNY Arts.

Steven Butler (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 … 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 was the most important thing that you learned?

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.

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 1,600 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 was the finding that the focus groups said that arts and culture create bridges between races and classes. That notion of creating bridges doesn’t always come to mind regarding 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 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, Vt., 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: 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: 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 canceled 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 people 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: What is the worst trait of the arts culture here?

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

GR: 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.

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.

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