Unison Arts Embraces Transformation
BY TERENCE P WARD
What’s now known as Unison Arts Center has had more than a few different names since it was founded in 1975, but themes of art, education, and sense of place have been woven into its essential fabric all along—along with a sense of vision that keeps getting renewed in fresh ways, by some of the New Paltz area’s most active visionaries.
A new group of such energized volunteers is now working on reimagining what this cultural staple should look like and be in the decades to come, and it’s clear that those cornerstones it started with will remain part of Unison’s vision into the future. Furthermore, Unison in its new iteration has become intent on sending out the message that they’re looking to honor and support the amazing work that already exists and work towards greater collaboration with the other organizations that exist throughout the area, in various fields. utilizing “the integrated wisdom, innovation, experience, and knowledge of our group.”
But first to Unison’s long history. Stuart Bigley, together with his wife Helene, has had his fates tied to that of the arts center since its start, by virtue of owning the property on Mountain Rest Road which houses the center and its noted sculpture garden and has played host to Unison’s plethora of art shows and live music events over the years. Bigley was there when the property was called the Friends of the Mountain School, and he purchased the land in 1980 when that project was winding down. That was around the time that the committee organizing the Olympic torch relay from Langley, Virginia to Lake Placid took over the space to coordinate its event, after which Bigley, an artist, knew that he wanted to emphasize the arts while continuing the site’s legacy of working with creative education.
In addition to live music and art exhibits, Unison has been the location for a wide variety of classes over the years. The one Bigley recalls with most fondness was “Boxercise,” led by the famed heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and an aerobics instructor. More usual fare, however, included such offerings as yoga and painting classes. The live music programming, meanwhile, reached an exciting peak some ten years ago, when settlement of a “pay to play” lawsuit by record company executives led to the creation of a massive fund for arts programming.
A few years ago, Bigley thought he’d retire from the operations of Unison and simply become a resident on the property, but sustaining a nonprofit that lacks a huge endowment is challenging. Last year volunteer board members trying to keep the operation together grew burnt out from their efforts, and both the Bigleys found themselves invited back onto the Unison board of directors. The dream of eventually selling the land to the nonprofit and ensuring its continuation seemed in doubt.
Sometimes, it takes a bit of providence to change direction. When an article about the struggle to keep the doors of Unison open ran last year, a copy of the issue ended up in the hands of Karali Pitzele as she was visiting her hometown of New Paltz. Pitzele’s father Peter had been a founder of the center, alongside the Bigleys, and at five years old she had attended the Friends of the Mountain School. In Bigley’s words, “She’s been involved as long as I have.” Pitzele, now Program Director for New Teacher Center in New York City, reached out to Bigley, not out of nostalgia but a recognition that the land and vision of Unison was something she wished to see continue.
“There is a personal connection,” Pitzele acknowledged—her mother still lives next door to Unison—”but it goes beyond that. I’m at a moment in my life when I want to give something more.” Although still living and working in New York City, she sought out a number of others who, like her, saw the value of Unison continuing to be a center of influence in the area.
From another direction, Accord-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Paul Lichtenberg, co-founder with his wife, Sibylle, of `Iris,’ a yoga and health retreat center, was seeking to help spearhead a holistic health center in New Paltz. Upon hearing about Pitzele’s interest in revitalizing Unison, Lichtenberg arranged a meeting with Pitzele and a small group. It became immediately clear that everyone in the group shared a mutual vision of creating a unique organizational approach to community health and enrichment. Inspired by other successful organizations in the area, Unison would follow a path of thoroughly integrating the arts, a broadened scope of holistic health, and environmental resilience, with emphases on education and collaboration.
Lichtenberg envisioned a center that would “conceptually and aesthetically lean into and reflect the complexity of the community and understand trauma and healing, not merely from the focus on an individual’s symptoms, but from a much broader and radically integrated perspective. “
Respectful of the deep history of the place, the new players organized themselves as an advisory board first and—drawing upon their collective interest in the intersection between diverse disciplines—crafted a new vision for Unison, “expanding its mission and reach far beyond the role it has traditionally played,” and reformulating the role of art into “a social and community practice.” Gradually, some members of the advisory board have now started to join the Bigleys on Unison’s board of directors.
The thoughtful pace of this reformative process suits Sarah Warren who, like Pitzele, attended Friends of the Mountain School as a small child but now sees much more potential in the space as an art historian whose own research has attempted to explore “ways art can function in close relationship with everyday life.” She believes this to be an opportunity to look at issues involving art and functionality in a more hands-on way and has reached out to Matthew Friday, a transdisciplinary artist and professor at SUNY New Paltz, to bolster what Unison can offer going forward. In short order Warren, Lichtenberg, Pitzele and Friday then assembled a deeper “brain trust” that evolved into the advisory board, including some members with experience in holistic health modalities.
Sixteen strong in all, including the Bigleys, these advisers are developing a model that will weave together art, health, and environmentalism in a context dedicated to outreach, social justice, and education. Five of the advisers have become a new board of directors, and together the two boards hope to engage wide and diverse groups of community members to “support substantive political dialogue,” according to the new Unison vision statement.
In addition to the Bigleys, Friday, Lichtenberg, Pitzele and Warren, the Unison Board of Advisors currently includes arts advocate and curator Michael Asbill, Linda J. Park of the Richard Hampton Jenrette Foundation, this publication’s publisher and Hudson Valley Current director Chris Hewitt, CPA and financial therapist Christin Seward, Band NY president and “moolah doula” Joanne Leffeld, and SUNY New Paltz political science professor Daniel Lipson.
Friday calls what’s emerging at Unison “a hub for experiencing community identity,” using the Unison land as a space to partner with other organizations such as Riverkeeper and amplify environmental and social messages through artistic expression. Lichtenberg speaks of Unison mutually supporting a robust community of progressive, visionary, and passionate organizations such as Wild Earth to the college’s rising arts scene, to Rondout Holistic Health Community. It’s all about engaging new, particularly younger populations while retaining those that have supported Unison to this point.
Everyone agrees that the new team is again moving Unison forward as a platform for this integral relational vision of sensitivity and connectivity. Pitzele said a series of new events reflecting the new direction should be starting by autumn, including work on themes involving art and ecological health, and transdisciplinary practices.
In the meantime, more traditional events continue as the bills must be paid. Coming up on May 6 will be a special fundraiser for Unison itself: the comedic performing-arts troupe Galumpha will be at the McKenna Theater at SUNY New Paltz on May 6, repeating programs it’s performed for the venerable institution in the past. But also promising to add something entirely new and exciting at the same time.