The Niagara Arts and Cultural Center's board of directors recently announced the appointment of Kevin Leary as the new executive director.
Leary joins the NACC after serving as the assistant director for the University at Buffalo Arts Management Program. Previous to his role at UB, Leary served as the managing director of Theatre of Youth. There, the NACC noted, “with the incredible artistic team and board of directors, he was able to increase earned and contributed revenues, and to grow overall attendance.”
Before his career as an arts manager and university administrator, Leary enjoyed a career in theater, performing in national tours of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “42nd Street,” “The Music Man” and “Camelot.”
NACC Board president Mary Ricciardi said, “Hiring Kevin makes me very optimistic about the future of this organization. He has the vision and the skills needed to transform the NACC from a local treasure into a regional destination.”
Leary chatted with NFP GM/Managing Editor Joshua Maloni last week. An edited Q&A follows.
New Niagara Arts and Cultural Center Executive Director Kevin Leary. (NACC photo)
Q: Tell me how this opportunity came about for you, and what excites you about this new position?
Leary: I guess the boring response is I saw a job posting. I was looking to get back into the professional world. I applied, and here I am. I think that's sort of the standard process.
But what appeals to me about it, I think that's really where we get into the guts of this. What appeals to me – and I said this to the search committee – I've always wanted to have my artistic practice, or my artistic life, have an impact socially somehow. And so, when I was a younger guy, and I was touring in various musical theater performances, I thought it was by somehow going against the commercial Broadway theater. So, I distinctly remember sitting in a rehearsal of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and saying, “Is it really about a $2 million flying car?” And the answer is yes, it is about a $2 million flying car. And so, I thought, “OK, the answer is go back to a master's program, get myself an MA in theater and arts management, and do some socially impactful work – you know, Peter Brook, Henrik Ibsen, all of this stuff.
And then I got out, and I got my master’s, and I started directing and choreographing a lot, and it was like, “Oh, there's not really as big of a market for that sort of work as I would want there to be for the lifestyle that I want to live.” And so, you start doing stuff that pays the bills, right? You do the commercial Broadway stuff again – not on Broadway or in national touring settings, but around Erie County. And so, you do that. But in the back of your mind, you're like, “How can I make an impact on the community with the work that I do?”
And when I saw the NACC, I thought to myself, “Here is an organization that is primed, sitting on a great, great piece of real estate right at the tip of the Pine Avenue/Little Italy neighborhood. Certainly, close to Niagara Falls, with all these tourists that come in every single year.” And this area needs a boost, right? It needs an organization that will bring in people from around the world, people from around Niagara County, people from around our region. And to bring all those people in, and when those people come in, they're going to need to have services. And so, I thought to myself, “You know, there is an organization that, if we turn this into a place that hosts hundreds of thousands of people a year, this neighborhood is going to benefit because of that” – because there will need to be private investment. There will be, hopefully, City of Niagara Falls investment. There'll be Niagara County investment. There'll be state investment. And all this money will pour into this community and make it better.
That's it. That's why we're here.
Q: Are you from Western New York that you had familiarity with the NACC?
Leary: I grew up in Olean, New York. I lived in Cheektowaga since about 2012. I actually didn't have that much familiarity with the NACC before a colleague at the University of Buffalo mentioned that they worked here. And then I did some research on the organization; saw the potential; saw where they're located in New York state; and thought to myself, ‘They've got a lot of potential there. They've got a great group of artists, a great group of tenant artists. And I think they're ready to do something special – and I'd like to be a part of that.”
Q: It seems like the goals you mentioned are very much in keeping with the goals the NACC has expressed over the years, which I think certainly makes this a good fit. Our experience with the NACC has been that there has been a lot of creative people there. A lot of groups. We do work, for example, with the Greater Niagara Ballet Company; we know that they utilize services there. So, a lot of a lot of creative people on staff, but also a lot of creative organizations that are partnering with the NACC. There's been a lot of good events; a lot of significant community events. Certainly, everything was derailed for a couple of years there with COVID. But, it seems like maybe there's not that consistency. You talk about bringing in this number of people every year, and maybe creating a mechanism for that to happen, so that it's not like just a series of one-offs, but that you've got this steady stream of people coming and making the NACC a part of their lives. How do you see the NACC taking the next step to make that happen?
Leary: I think it comes down with planning – and I think it comes down with planning more than one thing at once. The big thing with one-off programming, I think that what that demonstrates, or what that shows, is a smaller organization that does not necessarily have the staff manpower necessary to compete at the consistent level that we want to. But I think, as we go forward, I think we're going to find that manpower. I think we're going to find that manpower through the community, through our volunteers. I think we're going to find that manpower through our board. And I think we're going to find that manpower through the existing staff.
I earlier today, actually – it's funny that you mentioned this – a tenant came in and they said, ‘You know, it's so nice to see so many people around right now. It seems like there's so many more people, so much more activity.” And I think at our sort of like work level, our sort of organizational level, I think that's happening. We see that in a day in, day out basis. And now, soon, I think our public is going to see that in a day in, day out basis.
Because it comes down to planning. I have a background where I used to plan theater seasons for Theatre of Youth, and we would plan a year out in advance. And I think that sort of prior planning is going to come into the NACC here; and I can't wait to make those plans with our board and with our staff, and to provide the diverse array of things that have been happening here for 20 years, right, but on that more consistent basis. Because I see, much like you see, the only way that we get from A to B is if we do this on a consistent basis, and apply ourselves to that work.
The Greater Niagara Ballet Company on stage at the NACC (Photo courtesy of the NACC)
Q: Of course, it was a high school at one point – and there are, I'm sure, pros and cons that come with that. I know when I've taken tours of the building that I've discovered different, interesting places and spaces. I know I've heard that from some of your tenants. Do you think, right now, you have the infrastructure in place to do more of this programming and more of these events? Or, do you think it's going to have to be a combination of do some things, build some things, do some things, build some things?
Leary: Well, I think it's an incremental process, as you pointed out. I think that, obviously, we can get to a certain level with the facilities that we currently have; and then I think that to get to the scale and level of productions that we want to have in our future, whether that be visual or performing arts, I think some of our spaces are going to need some addressing. And I think we are already doing that with our theater renovation process. Our new capital project is going very well right now.
But other spaces that are not necessarily always seen by the public – you know, we've got our gallery space downstairs – that's seen by the public a lot. I think that's part of the way there, and I think there are going to be more improvements coming there. I think the gym is a fantastic space that is underutilized, and we can do stuff in there right now.
But to get to the level that we want to get to eventually, we're going to have to raise some money to do that. And this is where that consistency of having earned revenue streams for this facility coming in on a week-to-week basis, rather than a month-to-month basis, that's where we're going to see the gains for our audiences and for our tenants and artists alike. We're all going to win together.
What we're not going to be able to do is sit here and wait for funding to come in, to then do the programming in finished spaces. I like the idea and the challenge of taking these spaces as they currently are – and they are very usable spaces, as they currently exist. We want to do programming in them now, because waiting is not the answer. Using what we do have to the best of its capabilities, and the best of our capabilities, that's what we can control; and that's what we are doing.
Q: So, for the people who maybe haven't been in the building in a couple of years, what would be your invitation to them to come back, to participate in an event, or take a walking tour, or just find out more about what you have to offer. What would you say to those people to invite them back?
Leary: I would say come start your creative journey here at the NACC, because we want to hear what you have to say about what you think is best for arts and cultural experiences here in Niagara Falls. We have a lot to offer. We've got painting, we've got media art, we've got theater, we've got dance, we've got two different galleries, and two different performance spaces, and a gym that's waiting to be used. And the call here is, you want to do something creative, come do it at the NACC.
The NACC is located at 1201 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls. Its art galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information on current exhibits or planned events, visit www.TheNACC.org.
Art pieces – and the “Art of Beer” – staples at the NACC. (Contributed file photos)