Valuing Long Island Arts: Q&A with Theresa Statz-Smith, Executive Director of Long Island Arts Alliance


In the 1990s, the Village of Patchogue reopened the Patchogue Theatre, which is credited with helping bring people back downtown. Image courtesy of Doug Kerr/Flickr under Creative Commons License

The new Artspace building, which provides live-work space for artists, has served as an incubator of the arts in Patchogue’s downtown. “A lucky few artists and creative workers are actually courted by communities smart enough to plan and zone for artists’ housing,” says Theresa Statz-Smith, Executive Director of Long Island Arts Alliance (LIAA). Image courtesy of HHL Architects

Great Neck Plaza has built a beautiful collection of downtown public art; The New York Times called their trompe l’oeil murals “a devilishly well-planned illusion.” Image courtesy of Village of Great Neck Plaza

The Space at Westbury is a newly opened live performing arts venue in downtown Westbury that replaced the defunct Westbury Theater, a movie house originally built in the 1920s. Image courtesy of The Space at Westbury

The 2013 Lend Me a Tenor production at Bay Street Theater in downtown Sag Harbor. Image courtesy of Bay Street Theater and copyright Jerry Lamonica

The John W. Engeman Theater  reopened in 2005 in downtown Northport. “Cultural tourists spend more and stay longer than other types of tourist,” notes Statz-Smith of LIAA. Image courtesy of Doug Kerr/Flickr under Creative Commons License

Waltz of the Polypeptides, which is part of the art collection at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). CSHL “has long endorsed the idea that scientists surrounded by creativity in art and culture will be more creative in their science.” Image courtesy of George Hackett/Flickr under Creative Commons License


Theresa Statz-Smith is Executive Director of Long Island Arts Alliance (LIAA), a partnership of arts organizations, arts educators and individuals working to advance the arts across Long Island. Statz-Smith is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Long Island Index, which sponsors Build a Better Burb. She shared insights about how the arts contribute to a stronger region and more vibrant downtowns in summer 2014.

We have live performing arts venues in many of our downtowns, including Westbury, Huntington, Northport, Patchogue, Riverhead, and Sag Harbor, among others. These venues keep downtowns humming after 5pm and on weekends. What other benefits do they bring to local communities?

Theresa Statz-Smith: Restaurants, shops, and cafés all benefit from the pre- and post-theater crowds. And cultural tourists—who spend more and stay longer than other types of tourist—are looking for arts and cultural experiences, but they’re also looking for other amenities such as lodging, excellent cuisine, and that quaint little shop that sells items you can’t find elsewhere. It especially works well if the shop stays open on weekend evenings to capture the crowd. Performing arts centers, theaters, and museums are often important anchors for vibrant downtowns.

How do the arts make Long Island’s communities more livable—and help stem the region’s loss of young people?

Statz-Smith: Young professionals are certainly looking for great jobs, but also for places to live that allow them to engage in the community. They’re looking for reenergized communities and life-after-work activities. As Michael Spring of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs writes, “Great communities know this. They are committed to working with outstanding architects… they engage visionary planners… and they rely on talented artists to create environments that are surprising, uplifting, and welcoming.” One important role of LIAA is to organize and mobilize the region’s arts and cultural assets to support their role in the revitalization of our communities.

Which Long Island communities are most effectively using the arts for placemaking?

Statz-Smith: Led by Mayor Peter Cavallaro, the Village of Westbury has worked hard for many years to develop the kinds of housing options, services, recreational activities, and overall environment that attract younger residents, [and the Village has a long history of supporting the arts]. Recently, Westbury was ranked by CNNMoney as one of the top places to live for young, affluent, and single professionals in the United States. Westbury made the cut because of its proximity to New York City and institutions of higher education, as well as its variety of restaurants and recreational and cultural activities. In addition to being close to Old Westbury Gardens and the Nassau County Museum of Art, the Village recently formed the Greater Westbury Council for the Arts, and is actively engaged in supporting downtown business, arts, and culture. Another new development bringing entertainment to Westbury is The Space at Westbury. Other Long Island communities that understand the benefits of creative placemaking include Patchogue, Greenport, and Riverhead, to name just a few.

Does the Long Island region’s shortage of affordable housing have an impact on our ability to attract and retain artists and creative workers?

Statz-Smith: I often think of artists as “first responders” when it comes to rejuvenating neighborhoods.  The artist will go into a rundown community, rent a studio space, and begin work. Soon, other artists learn about the opportunity, move in, and things start happening. There is a new optimism and a new energy in town. First a coffee shop sets up, then a café, and eventually the area is transformed. Really successful communities actually integrate this concept into their planning and zoning. Artspace in the Village of Patchogue is a new 5-story building with 45 affordable live/work spaces on the upper floors and the Patchogue Arts Council and the Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center at street level. Located in downtown Patchogue, the $18 million project represents both economic revitalization and the opportunity to strengthen a growing arts community, since many Main Street storefronts are now occupied by artists and creative businesses. Artists and creative workers are certainly challenged to find affordable housing on Long Island, but many find creative ways to make it work, and a lucky few are actually courted by communities smart enough to plan and zone for artists’ housing.

UrbanSCALE’s list of “12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown” includes numerous recommendations centered on the arts. For a community looking to revitalize their downtown through the arts, what would be your top recommendation?

Statz-Smith: My favorite strategy of the 12 is to establish a regularly occurring public event showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food. Many communities are doing this already.

How does LIAA get the word out about all these local events across the region—and promote Long Island’s arts and cultural institutions?

Statz-Smith: “If Long Island were not situated in the shadow of the city, it would be among the top ten regions in the country when it comes to excellence in the arts,” says Roger Tilles, longtime patron of the arts and education, as well as the visionary behind the founding of LIAA. LIAA is an alliance of the top arts and culture organizations in the region working together to promote awareness of and participation in Long Island’s world-class arts and cultural institutions. This belief is behind LIAA’s Arts Alive LI site, where all the amazing arts and cultural events that happen on Long Island every day are listed. Long Island is the setting for a one-of-a-kind regional festival, our annual Arts Month, in which all involved share a single vision: to showcase the many high-quality experiences Long Island has to offer during a month-long celebration of the region’s arts, culture, food, and wine. Core to the LIAA mission is to demonstrate that the arts not only bind the social fabric of our communities, but are also integral to driving local economic growth.

Is artistic activity a major contributor to economic vitality in our region? Is it possible to quantify the economic impact of the arts on Long Island?

Statz-Smith: When it comes to jobs, Arts Alive LI brings the arts to bear on Long Island’s regional economic development and sustainability—in a very big way. Every sector of the economy benefits from more heads in beds, more passengers on planes and trains, more visitors to our downtowns, more diners at restaurants, and more customers at local businesses. The arts and culture industry is a vital economic engine, providing skilled and high-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. In 2010, Long Island Association Economist Dr. Pearl Kamer noted, “The arts constitute a significant economic entity on Long Island. The demand for the types of services they provide is increasing.”  As part of the 2010 study Long Island’s Not-for-Profit Sector: Doing More with Less During a Period of Economic Change, Dr. Kamer worked closely with LIAA organizations to complete a survey; based on that survey, Dr. Kamer wrote, “Five-year operating and capital expenditures attributable to the 42 respondents totaled almost $179.4 million. This spending caused Long Island’s output of goods and services to increase by more than $385 million, including the original expenditure. This is equivalent to a net output increase of more than $206 million. Long Island earnings increased by more than $118 million and more than 5,200 jobs were created throughout the Long Island economy.” LIAA plans to repeat the survey in 2016.

A recent study published in Economic Development Quarterly found that children who engage in the arts are more likely to become successful businesspeople as adults. Why does nurturing creativity in our young people matter for Long Island’s economy?

Statz-Smith: The arts engage and strengthen both sides of the brain, creating new connections, new ways of thinking, and innovation in problem-solving. The arts often engage those students who otherwise might not stay in school. People will ask, “Why support the arts when there are children without food to eat, right in our own neighborhoods?” I respond by saying, “We must first feed the children so they will stay alive, but give them education and the arts so they will have something to live for.” When it comes to Long Island’s economic future, innovative thinking is among the critical skills necessary for our workers to excel in the global marketplace. Of course there are challenges, and we often see the arts as the first place cuts are made in our schools, but you can’t cut your way to excellence. This idea is behind the mission of LIAA to support, not supplant, arts educators and arts programs in our schools.

How does LIAA advocate for arts education?

Statz-Smith: Arts education is a common thread running through LIAA’s three major programs, including the Arts Education Roundtable, Scholar-Artist Awards, and Arts Alive LI. LIAA created the Arts Education Roundtable to provide support for communication and strategic planning to strengthen arts education among Long Island’s schools, professional arts presenters, community arts or­ganizations, university arts programs, local arts councils, and arts educators. These stakeholders share the common goal of facili­tating community involvement in the arts and enhanc­ing arts education for the children of Long Island, with specific attention to those from areas underserved by arts education. LIAA’s Scholar-Artist Awards program, fashioned after the well-known Scholar-Athlete program, recognizes students judged to be “the best of the best” on Long Island in both academics and the arts. Arts Alive LI is designed to shine the spotlight on the region’s rich arts and cultural landscape, and arts education takes center stage at the Free Family Arts Festival kicking off at the annual Arts Month celebration each year.

Long Island is known for our fragmented government—we have hundreds of governmental entities delivering services across the region, and it sometimes feels like we’re defined by those things that set us apart (e.g., which village we live in, which school our kids go to), rather than what brings us together. How do the arts cross boundaries? Are there noteworthy examples of Long Islanders working together because of the arts?

Statz-Smith: The arts build bridges between communities and construct a common language of beauty and creativity between cultures. There are several noteworthy examples of Long Islanders working together on regional arts and culture initiatives, including LIAA’s Arts Alive LI, which is an excellent example of state and local partnerships in the arts, with business and government working together on an arts-based regional effort. The project enjoys critical support from Bethpage Federal Credit Union with additional support from Long Island Community Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and Empire State Development’s Division of Tourism/I LOVE NEW YORK, through Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council initiative. Another example, SPARKBOOM™, is an exciting new collaboration led by Huntington Arts Council that provides opportunities and venues for emerging artists, with the aim of holding onto Long Islanders who might otherwise migrate to perceived greener pastures, while stimulating local economies. SPARKBOOM™ is a win/win for artists, employers, local economies, and the culturally appreciative public. On Long Island’s East End, a music festival launched in 2006 called Winterfest: Live on the Vine is “well on its way to becoming a regional and even national attraction with great growth potential. …It has been recognized for its cultural tourism impact during [the] off season and has greatly stimulated the business economy during the cold winter months.” Live on the Vine is a collaborative effort between East End Arts, The Long Island Wine Council, Suffolk County National Bank, and Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, with support from Suffolk County. Every sector of our cultural and economic landscape benefits from regional arts and cultural collaborations. Long Island is so much more than a suburb of New York City—we are our own ethnically rich and vibrant region, chock full of cultural venues, nightlife, downtowns, landmarks, and activities for all ages and interests.

Great Neck Plaza has built a beautiful collection of downtown public art—The New York Times called their trompe l’oeil murals “a devilishly well-planned illusion.” What’s your favorite example of public art on Long Island?

Statz-Smith: I’ve always been impressed with the public art at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). First of all, it’s a wonderful collection ranging from whimsical to stunning. It’s also such a great example of how art and science connect. CSHL “has long endorsed the idea that scientists surrounded by creativity in art and culture will be more creative in their science.” My favorite piece in the collection is Waltz of the Polypeptides. The sculpture is 80 feet long and 10 feet high, and knowing that it depicts “a ribosome caught in the act of producing the BLyS protein, which stimulates the production of infection-fighting antibodies in the body” is interesting, but does not prepare you for the impact of seeing this work of art while you are walking the laboratory campus.

Interview has been condensed and edited.