A small town can play a big role in a region’s cultural life. That’s surely true of Norwich, Oxford and Oneonta, each of which hosts a musical series or venue that draws fans from miles around. Recent grants from the Community Foundation have helped small, volunteer-powered organizations in these places enrich the local arts scene with first-rate entertainment.
The Chenango Blues Festival has been a popular annual event in Norwich for 26 years. For about the past dozen years, the Chenango Blues Association has complemented that festival with a summer music series. In 2018, the Free Thursdays Summer Concert Series offered nine shows that featured progressive bluegrass, roots rock, zydeco, world music and reggae, among other genres, and included the well-known band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
The series, which charges no admission, drew 3,000 people or more to each event in 2018, says Steven Palmatier, a member of the Chenango Blues Association’s board. Some of that audience travels a long way. “For the Southside Johnny Show, we had people here from Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware,” he says. “I would say that a third of our people come from outside the area.”
Retail sales in Norwich pick up on concert evenings, Palmatier says. “The restaurants and bars will tell you these are some of their busiest nights during the summer.” NBT Bank has become a major sponsor of the series, noting how such attractions in the region help with efforts to recruit and retain young employees.
A $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation in 2018 let the Chenango Blues Association add a local band to the lineup, bring in better-known bands and maintain high production values at the Thursday evening concerts, Palmatier says.
Oxford has been a hot spot for live acoustic music since the 1990s. In 2007, 6 On The Square (6OTS) opened in the space once occupied by the venerable Night Eagle Café. With 25 to 30 performances each year, 6OTS has hosted a mix of newer performers and well-established acts such as Vance Gilbert, Christine Lavin, Lucy Kaplansky and Robin and Linda Williams.
Much of the audience comes from within an hour’s drive of the 90-seat venue. But for bigger-name acts, people have traveled to Oxford from as far as Buffalo, New York City and New Jersey.
“A lot of well-known performers like to perform in a small venue like ours, where it’s a bit more intimate, the acoustics are great and the audience is great to talk with,” says Nancy Morey, executive director at 6OTS. But sometimes ticket sales fall a bit short of the guaranteed fees these more popular performers require.
That’s where a recent grant from the Community Foundation comes in—filling the occasional revenue gap. The grant was only $1,500, given to support performances from September 2018 to March 2019, but that small sum makes a big difference, Morey says. “It assures that we can bring in those performers for our community to enjoy.”
The Oneonta Concert Association (OCA) has been sponsoring performances in Otsego County since 1928. Offering a mix of classical, jazz, ethnic, and other forms of music, plus dance performances, it too sometimes attracts well-known performers, such as Celtic fiddler Eileen Ivers and jazz bassist Ron Carter. Often, musicians find that Oneonta is conveniently located between other stops on a multi-city tour, explains Margery Merzig, a member of OCA’s board. “They’re able to fit us in and give us a really great price.”
With a budget of about $50,000 a year, OCA sponsors at least five concerts, plus workshops by visiting artists, or “arts field days” that bring the artists to local public schools.
OCA’s audience comes largely from Oneonta and surrounding communities such as Walton, Sidney, Cobleskill and Delhi—and, for more popular acts, a good deal further. While that audience is devoted, it’s also graying, Merzig says. That doesn’t bode well for the future.
In 2018, the Community Foundation provided $6,125 to support OCA’s new Young Audience Initiative, a multi-pronged effort to gain fans in the rising generation. OCA’s strategies include: marketing through social media; sending promotional mailings to families whose children participate in band or chorus at school; and sending complimentary tickets to band directors in the region’s public schools, to use themselves and share with students.
OCA also plans to offer more workshops. A mailing sent to schools, encouraging students who play brass instruments to attend a free workshop by the Boston Brass in September 2018, drew about 50 students and 25 accompanying adults. “It was hosted at Hartwick College, and so college students also attended,” Merzig says.
At the end of the grant period, OCA’s board will extend the impact of its experiment by sharing lessons learned with other local performing arts organizations, including the Catskill Symphony, the Catskill Choral Society and Orpheus Theater, Merzig says. “Hopefully, they can benefit from this grant, too.”