A seat at the table: former Council on the Arts Executive Director tells her story
After serving the Tioga County Council on the Arts for over 21 years, former Executive Director Annette Schweiger describes her journey as one where she first had a "seat at the table" on her way towards leaving a "footprint for the arts" in Tioga County, New York. It was with mixed emotions that Schweiger announced her retirement late last year.
Recently, Schweiger told her story. She now looks back at the "footprint for the arts" she left behind and reflects on the accomplishments made, the largest being the acquisition and renovation of the historic Old Owego Bank building at 179 Front St. as a permanent home for the Arts Council.
Schweiger was offered a "seat at the table" in 1990 as a member of the Board of Directors at the Arts Council. At that time, she explained, the organization, which had been moving to various locations including the Baptist Church annex and the Chamber of Commerce building that operated on Front Street, was renting space on North Avenue.
Working in banking prior to this, Schweiger, with arts being her primary passion, put much of her energy into working with the Board and volunteering. Her interesting background soon began to shape the Arts Council into what it is today.
Schweiger noted that business was her second love, along with hands-on renovations and designing buildings. She explained, "I had bought and sold five homes over the years and did renovations in each one."
Schweiger also talked of her previous pursuits, which included a brief foray into the field of fashion design. She traveled overseas and studied at the Paris Academy of Fashion and Design in London. In the early 1960's, she returned home to Philadelphia.
Business activities also fascinated Schweiger and she landed a job in the banking industry - a job she maintained for 20 years. She moved to Owego in 1971.
Schweiger talked of her banking experience, describing rising through the ranks, eventually becoming a branch manager and loan officer. "I gained marketing experience and loved it," said Schweiger. In fact, Schweiger attributed this marketing experience as helping her gain a "seat at the table" at the Tioga County Council on the Arts.
When the director's position at the Arts Council became available in 1991, Schweiger was offered the position. She enthusiastically accepted. "It was like having dessert every day," said Schweiger of the work she was doing at the Arts Council.
And there were many who helped her along the way.
Most notable of those was longtime friend Jim Wood, who helped build the foundation upon which the Arts Council, as it is today, stands. Wood, affectionately known as "Woody", passed away several years ago, but his memory lives on in the building that would soon be acquired by the Arts Council.
"We worked long and hard in those days," said Schweiger. "Who cared about vacations and holidays? I was having dessert every day and had the privilege of working with so many wonderful people in the community."
The Arts Council flourished, with trips arranged to New York City, concerts throughout the year, and chalk contests during En Plein Air intended to inspire younger artists. As avid animal lovers, both Woody and Schweiger, the Arts Council even held photo contests that featured animals.
After several years on North Avenue, and with funds remaining tight for the arts, the council relocated to the second floor of the Owego Pennysaver; however, Schweiger was still looking for that place where the Arts Council could leave its footprint.
In 1999 a building became available on East Main Street. Funding to make the purchase was available from the Mildred Faulkner Truman Foundation, but the final bid for the building failed.
Not giving up, Woody noticed the old Owego Bank building was up for sale by attorney Robert Collins. After contacting Collins, a deal was soon struck. The prospects of leaving a footprint inched closer to reality. With funding secured from the Fannie C. Hyde Charitable Trust, Chemung Canal Trust, The Cooper Foundation, and the Tioga State Bank, plus the funds already received from the Mildred Faulkner Truman Foundation, the building was soon purchased.
"It was a dream come true," said Schweiger. "Not only did we have a seat at the table, we had our footprint," she added, "and then the fun began."
Many repairs were needed on the old building, to include ceiling work, roof work, and adding phone and computer systems, new bathrooms and new doors. The metal clad covering the front of the building was also removed in order to save the underlying original brick which was in a state of disrepair.
Schweiger noted that there is not a piece of the building that she has not helped renovate. She tore out walls and ceilings, ripped up carpeting in the basement and helped throw away tons of trash left behind by former tenants of the building.
The Arts Council used the basement as a meeting place and for classes, and operated offices from the second floor of the building once it was renovated for use. The council also received a small grant to make the building handicapped accessible.
The first floor of the building was utilized for exhibits, but the lighting was poor, and the heating was not good. The council eventually installed a new furnace and had air conditioning installed.
A grant from then Congressman Maurice Hinchey for the gallery provided for restoration of the tin ceiling, new lighting and painting, and the eventual restoration of the brick façade of the building. Local artist Tim Tarbox expertly repaired the tin ceiling and restored it to its original colors.
Struggling, along with other non-profit organizations, funding was difficult to maintain. The Arts Council decided to rent the upstairs, relocated its offices to the rear of the building, and leased the front gallery to a cooperative of artists joining as the Black Cat Gallery.
Prior to Schweiger's departure, one last change happened within the building. The Black Cat Gallery relocated to a larger space on Front Street, and the American Red Cross moved in to occupy the office space in the rear of the building. The TCCA office space moved to the center offices, and the renovated gallery was left intact in the front of the building. It now operates as the ArtSpace Gallery and has been featuring a new exhibit and ArtWalk reception each month.
A significant change happened when Owego native Steve Cooper relocated back to the area and became proactive at the arts council, eventually joining the Board. According to Schweiger, Cooper secured the remaining federal funding necessary to restore the building under a Save America's Treasures grant.
As a result of the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee in September, 2011, the Arts Council basement filled with water, destroying the classroom and most of the council's supplies and inventory. The furnace, water heater, electrical system and phone system were destroyed as well.
Cooper was instrumental in obtaining the grant monies necessary to repair the infrastructure, restore the classroom, and replace the lost materials. The Arts Council has been able to affect the recovery without taking on any debt.
Schweiger is proud of the fact that throughout the renovations and restoration from flooding, the arts council maintained their Home Tour, the En Plein Air, Kids' Night Out, and Concerts in the Park events, the latter of which had to be temporarily relocated to the Village of Owego due to the flood damage at Hickories Park.
Even the Hickory Smoked Music Festival, which started years ago as "Jazz on the River" by Jim Wood, was able to find a temporary location. This annual event has been supported by Visions Federal Credit Union each year, and has been a primary fundraiser.
Other projects throughout the years included a mural in Waverly, N.Y., murals at the Boys & Girls Club in Owego, murals at the Parkview Restaurant, and other sketches and paintings that left an even deeper footprint in the community.
Without volunteers and the support of TCCA members, noted Schweiger, none of these things would have happened. Most of all, there was Jim Wood, who was a farmer at heart, with a love for animals and a passion for the arts. Woody, as all knew him, arrived at the council every day, sometimes carrying Schweiger's beloved dog Chessie up the stairs when Chessie could no longer see.
Other volunteers have been key supporters: the late Fran Leavenworth, who devoted many hours to serving the arts in the community; Eda Brent, Marion Simpson, Bob Merwin, and other community artists who were always there to promote their work in support of the arts. Others like Pat Gause, a former arts council executive director; and Emma Sedore, Tioga County Historian; along with members and support from Historic Owego Marketplace and members of the Owego Elks Lodge, were always there to support the arts.
"The Arts council has been my passion, my life," said Schweiger. She continued, "All the people I have worked with, and our wonderful, loyal members have made it so worthwhile. It has been a team effort and I'm so grateful that the commitment of an entire community has made sure that the arts in Tioga County will continue to have a 'seat at the table'."
For those who want to learn more about the Arts Council, meet its new director Abbey Hendrickson, and take a look at the renovated building as it is today, you can attend the re-scheduled open house on Feb. 22, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at their building located at 179 Front St. in Owego, N.Y.