Catalyst for the Arts

Stephen Butler carries the torch to sustain arts, culture in Central New York

By Aaron Gifford

CNY Arts staff; from left are Matthew De Bellas, Elizabeth Allers, Elizabeth Lane, Stephen Butler, Susan Tromans, Paula Kinev.
CNY Arts staff; from left are Matthew De Bellas, Elizabeth Allers, Elizabeth Lane, Stephen Butler, Susan Tromans, Paula Kinev.

Stephen Butler cut his teeth in the Big Apple, but his heart for art brought him back to the Salt City.

So if you ask him how can he still appreciate the musicals, the museums, the galleries and the other art forms in Central New York when he spent so much time in one of the world’s greatest entertainment centers, Butler is quick to point out there is so much here that goes unappreciated.  It’s a conversation he never gets tired of having.

“People experience art differently,” said Butler, 58. “Whether you go to the Syracuse Symphony — which is a really great show — or you go to Shifty’s (bar) to see a rock band that is also really great, it’s still art, not just entertainment. The biggest challenge is to communicate what’s being offered so art can be all it can be.”

It was an interesting turn of events that led the Syracuse native in multiple directions within the world of arts before he took on an almost entirely different career field that gave him the leadership skills needed to oversee all things art for a huge chunk of Upstate New York.

Butler spent his early childhood on the city’s north side before moving to the hamlet of Cold Springs, between Liverpool and Baldwinsville. He was the middle child of four siblings. His grandparents lived on Oneida Lake, where he spend many summer afternoons swimming and developing the strokes that would eventually help him represent his high school swim team.

Mom Joyce and dad Nelson were both very much involved in the arts. They volunteered at the Shacksboro School House Museum in Baldwinsville.

Joyce worked on exhibits and painted sets for productions. “Arts and culture,” Butler said, “were a big part of our lives.”

His first audition with the Baldwinsville Theater Guild didn’t go well, but he initially found his role in the chorus. “I had a chorus voice. I didn’t have a lead voice. I learned that very quickly,” he said with a laugh.

Butler also participated in elementary school square dance competitions. At C.W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, he performed in “Once Upon a Mattress.” He was also involved with the “Up With People” productions at the regional level.

Throughout high school, Butler continued to take voice lessons and participated in state vocal competitions. He was always motivated to continue trying, even if he didn’t get lead parts in plays or win all-state vocal honors. As a competitive distance swimmer, Butler also understood the importance of pacing yourself. That mindset stayed with him outside the pool.

Butler wanted to move to New York City right out of high school, but his parents talked him into going to college. SUNY Oswego seemed like a fair compromise.

“They super convinced me,” he said. “Yes, it’s college. But they still had theater there.”

Butler immediately felt home at SUNY Oswego, getting along great with his peers and professors, especially Kitty Macey, who now chairs the program; Mark Cole, now a retired chairman; and the late Jack Kingston, who taught theater classes. The challenge for Butler was competing against a much wider group of students, many of them from New York City and Long Island, for stage time.  But at the same time, he also appreciated the wide variety of backgrounds.

“Some students were older than me and had been in the Vietnam War, going to school on the G.I. Bill. There was a lot you can learn from them,” Butler explained, adding that the group of SUNY Oswego theater and music majors he graduated with still gets together periodically for reunions. “It was a much more diverse group in age, experience and ethnicity.”

Gravitates toward production

At SUNY Oswego, students could perform on various stages, Butler explained. All students in the program participate in lab theater productions, but casting for the main stage shows was more selective. The mid-level productions were called the “black box shows.” Plus there were chances to sing and dance in community playhouses that were outside of the college, and students could also get experience working at the nearby Renaissance Faire in the summer.

It wasn’t long before Butler developed a special interest in the inner workings of a production, and he aspired to be in charge of casting, planning and working out all the logistics for putting on a show.

“Ultimately,” he said, “that was the direction I moved in.”

By senior year, Butler had mixed feelings about professional acting. He was more excited about the potential of working behind the scenes. After graduation, he moved to New York City, the Mecca of performing arts at the time. Money was tight as Butler tried to find work in his field, so he took a job at a travel agency where he was assigned to help foreign nationals at the Manhattan embassies get visas.

To save money, he walked instead of riding the subways. He had some auditions for local theater productions, but quickly realized that he had lost his interest in acting. Instead, he worked his way up in the production side, working as a box office manager and then as a stage manager for a small company that cast actors to perform in a series of summer performances.

Butler became part of a theater employees union and was finally making money in the Big Apple doing what he loved. He continued to grow his career there, accepting a position with a nonprofit organization — Alliance of Resident Theaters NY (ART NY) — where he handled programming and member services for several theaters. This is where he developed his collaboration skills that would eventually prepare him for a significant leadership role.

“We did about 50 round table [discussions] a year,” Butler said. “But another part of the job was wheeling and dealing and making sure you got the things you need to put on a theater production.”

Shortly into his tenure with ART NY, Butler was tapped to organize a rally to generate support for his organization and other groups that promoted the performing arts in New York City. Their major funding source, the National Endowment of the Arts, was facing potential budget cuts.

“In the early ‘90s,” Butler said, “it was under a threat. A lot of union jobs were on the line.”

Advocating for jobs

In order to generate maximum attention and publicity, the rally itself had to be planned as if it were a performance. Butler hired a producer and scrambled to find a star performer who lived in New York and was readily available. He knew Christopher Reeve, who starred in the 1978 “Superman” movie, was socially conscious to causes like this. And to Butler’s luck, Reeve’s number was actually listed in the phone book. But Reeve was getting married on the day of the rally, so in his place he sent Tony award-winner Matthew Broderick (also the star of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) and accomplished Hollywood and Broadway actor Ossie Davis.

The event got significant coverage from The New York Times and was considered a major success. Butler discovered he loved advocacy work, and there certainly was a need for it. With ART NY, he also worked to promote arts in school and protect performing and visual arts from budget cuts. As Butler continued to expand his skill set, he developed a burning curiosity for “drama therapy.”

The concept is to help mental health patients rewrite their own endings so they can be happier and change their thinking patterns.

“We advocated that deficits can be positives,” Butler explained. “Someone who is having trouble and acting like a bully can instead become a director. With children especially, it really changes perceptions of themselves.”

And so, Butler found himself employed as the head of a drama therapy program for Creative Alternatives of New York, where he was responsible for overseeing the services and raising money to continue them. The program benefited patients of all ages, including war veterans. While Butler enjoyed the work, he did not have training in this field and felt like he was flying by the seat of his pants. Friends convinced Butler to get a degree in the field so he could advance his career. As a result, in 2004 he returned home and enrolled in the Maxwell School of Public Administration at Syracuse University.

The full-time program was designed for mid-career professionals. On the side, Butler worked for Appleseed Trust, a microloan program that also provided planning services for small businesses. This job gave Butler the chance to apply what he was learning in school. He served as interim director, supervising a staff of three employees.

When Butler was awarded his master’s degree, he received three job offers on the same day. He accepted the executive director position with the Mental Health Association of Onondaga County. Even though this career did not involve an arts organization, Butler was still able to use art as a tool for success. He’s quick to point out that signing or playing an instrument for patients, or allowing patients to perform, is a well-documented method of treatment.

“People signing or playing an accordion — they actually did that for shell shock patients,” Butler said. “Art therapy is nothing new, just like the ink blot tests and how they are interpreted is nothing new.”

Turnaround time

In three years, Butler stabilized the organization’s finances and improved its standards. Although he was successful at his new career as an executive director, Butler still desired more art in his work life. When the executive director position became available at the Cultural Resources Council for Syracuse and Onondaga County in 2008, Butler threw his hat in the ring.

Butler got the job, but he inherited a mess. The Great Recession had hit CRC hard, and it was running a deficit of about $350,000. He had to make rapid and radical shifts to the agency. He cut from the top, eliminating three director positions and taking on their tasks. The less money spent on salaries, he said, the more spent on active programs that bring arts and culture to the communities. He also identified redundancies and inefficiencies. One of the first things he noticed was the youth theater program had been “hemorrhaging money,” Butler said.

At that time, the agency was serving three counties: Onondaga, Cortland and Oswego. Today, now called CNY Arts, it serves six counties, including Madison, Oneida and Herkimer. Last year, the agency distributed $1.5 million for youth scholarships, arts programs across the region and advocacy efforts.

In a recent survey of 7,000 participants in the six-county area (of the total population of 1.1 million people), 72 percent of those surveyed indicated the arts are a very important part of their lives.  Most indicated they believe it’s very important to expose children to the arts during and after school, and most believe more arts programs should get significant funding from local, state or the federal government.

Most respondents also indicated CNY Arts needs to do a better job informing the public of the different venues, performances and exhibits in the region.

Butler took those comments personally, and has since focused much of his efforts on getting the word out on all things arts, at least locally. The top of the CNY Arts home page, for example, features a calendar and search function to look for events. A recent search on the page brought up 5,317 events, ranging from a production of “Sleeping Beauty” at the Spaghetti Warehouse in Syracuse, to morning yoga sessions at the View Art Center in Old Forge.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is to communicate all that’s being offered,” he said.

Butler is also working to bring more program dollars for arts that are relevant to the different populations of Central New York. He would also like to see a more ethnically diverse offering of arts across the region.

Catherine Gerard, associate director of executive education programs at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, who had Butler as a student, called him “a natural born collaborator.

“He has an uncanny ability to bring people to the table and engage discussion,” said Gerard, who serves on the CNY Arts board of directors. “Sometimes it means putting your own vision away a little bit and listening and making space for everybody. When you are in an area where people are fighting for the same resources, fighting for the same piece of the pie, you need someone like this. He’s there for the arts, not for himself.”

When he’s not working at CNY Arts, Butler serves as an adjunct professor at Le Moyne College’s arts administration program, which involves videotaping his lectures for online students. After work, Butler exercises at the Syracuse YMCA for about an hour each day. The Eastwood resident also enjoys visiting his mother, spending time at museums and historical sites throughout the region, hiking in the Adirondacks, and strolling through the city of Syracuse, just like he did as a youngster.

“I walk the same streets I did as a kid and still notice things I haven’t seen before,” he said. “That’s the beauty of architecture. That’s the beauty of art.”

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