Oncenter’s Terri Toennies brings fresh perspective

Walt Shepperd 02/19/10More articles
Ellen Leahy Oncenter’s Terri Toennies sits down for a Q&A with Walt Shepperd.
Syracuse arts community needs leadership

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews with people prominent in areas on the agenda for the city under a new administration. This week the discussion of arts in the city is with Oncenter President and CEO Terri Toennies.

You grew up in the area, went away to learn your craft, and came back. What are you bringing to help the local arts community?
My hope that I’m bringing back, is the understanding that Syracuse can be a major player for cultural arts, and that we have all the tools, we just need the positive energy of people all coming together, instead of all these independent silos trying to do things on their own. If we all sat around one big table: city, county, cultural arts council, symphony, opera—all the arts and cultural things we have in town—and determined what are we as a whole community going to do, the power would be huge.
Unfortunately, I think that everyone stays in their little silos, and they try to do a little bit of everything, and when it doesn’t work, they don’t try it anymore.

With this Syracuse Crunch outdoor game they’re going to do, it’s an unbelievable event. It’s all been really because the team believed in it and they’re going to prove to the city of Syracuse that we can be a national player. The NCAA event coming up—all of these are events that bring people in from outside, so why can’t it be the same with arts programming? Wicked, 48,000 people came to watch that show, and some people enjoyed it so much they bought tickets in Rochester and Buffalo. All of the area restaurants, parking lots, everybody benefits. Employment grows.

Studies show that the economic impact of the arts is $4 to $5 from every $1 spent. Do you think folks in this community understand that?
I think people tend to think, “Oh, it’s something I’ve seen before, and I’m just going to go down and watch the play or watch the Symphony, and then I’m going to leave and go back home,” instead of making it a whole night of it in the area. We see this in the classics audience. The Symphony audience has been coming for years, and years, and years. It’s pretty much the same number of people, but the performances are different and exciting to all kinds of genres, and the stereotype is: come, park, go and leave. With some of the pops things the Symphony is doing, you get more of a diverse audience, and they’re going to restaurants, staying downtown, and telling their friends about it. That’s starting to grow.

The same thing is happening with the smaller performance arts groups that maybe only have an audience of 150 at the BeVard Theater—they’re staying and enjoying their whole time downtown. They’re not just coming, going and leaving right away. The more business we can drive that brings a diverse audience downtown, the more everyone’s going to benefit from it.

The traditional audiences you refer to are all graying. How do we get the next generation?
We get the next generation by being able to educate children, letting kids when they’re eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve experience the arts. Whether it’s in school, attending a performance, whether it’s someone underwriting the performance so they come in for free, then they start getting that theater bug. But you’ve got to start with the families allowing them to do that, too. Granma and grampa have to make sure that their kids are doing it for their kids, and on down the road.

During the mayoral campaign, Stephanie Miner told a meeting of representatives of the arts community that the city has no money for the arts, and will not have in the foreseeable future. Do you have a response to her perspective on arts funding from the city?
I think arts funding from the city gets confused, maybe, with arts funding from the county. I think both entities need to sit down together and figure out: where are we duplicating our efforts, and where are we not. Also, from a philanthropic standpoint, a lot of the ongoing arts programs have been doing the same annual galas for the last 20 years. You cannot grow your business by doing everything status quo. That’s another mistake we’ve made in Syracuse—we’ve been comfortable, and we’ve got to get out of that comfort zone and try something new.

I haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk with Stephanie Miner, but I don’t think she’s saying , “No,” to arts funding, as much as maybe saying, “How can we help the arts community better fund their projects. Maybe it’s not a handout. Maybe it’s how can we be most effective. You see the Landmark Theater and the renovation they’re doing. When they complete that renovation they’ll be able to compete, head to head, with what we’re putting up in the Civic Center theater. In reality, is that the best thing for this city, or do we sit down with the Landmark, which is city owned, and the county with the Civic Center, and say, “If you’re going to put on all the Broadway shows, the we’ll keep the Symphony and the Opera.” Let’s make it a win-win situation.

What will it take to get that kind of cooperation community-wide?
It starts with the city, the county, people like myself, all sitting at one table. Joining Armory Square to the Civic Center to SU, making the entertainment district, is the people in charge of those areas all coming together. Then taking all the cultural arts people who are all about their own, putting them at the table and seeing how they can help each other. We I first got here I was surprised how we, even in our own three buildings, did not promote within the buildings.

You’ve got to be tenacious. You can not try it once or twice and then just walk away. You’ve got to push, not in a hurtful manner, but with the right, positive people altogether. It’s the negative that will shoot you down.

What don’t we have to achieve it?
We don’t have one leader that’s taking all the cultural arts programs, putting everyone at the table together. You have all these arts organizations and a vibrant arts scene, but you don’t have one entity promoting all of it.

Is that entity an institution?
I think it’s an association, with a board that represents all the different arenas, but they have to be willing to sit at one table and talk.

If there was one show you could produce that might inspire all the groups to come to that table, what would it be?
There’s so much diverse demographic that I’d like to see a line-up of events. One thing for sure, make the jazz and blues festivals quarterly. If you have something coming four times a year, and you start bringing different people in, and you have other genres near-by, dancing and gospel, or a concert with an exhibit at the Everson, then you have people coming together.

Reach Walt Shepperd at city@cnylink.com.

CATEGORY: General Business
TAGS: Walt Shepperd,city@cnylink.com,Syracuse arts community,Oncenter President/CEO Terri Toennies,Syracuse Crunch outdoor game,Syracuse Oncenter
EDITION: The Eagle

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