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Artpark President George Osborne turns around a once struggling Artpark

LEWISTON – Artpark, which is celebrating its 40th year this summer season, started flush with state funding, fell on leaner times in its middle years and is now experiencing new success under the leadership of President George Osborne.

In the 1970s, New York State pumped millions of dollars into the park to encourage visual and performing arts and youth programming for arts, but that all changed as money dried up and state funding was cut.

The threat of closure loomed large in the late 1990s, and it shut down temporarily in 1996 as leaders attempted to privatize the park. The community fought to keep the park, and it remained open with a limited schedule until Artpark and Co. negotiated a three-year management agreement in 1997. Artpark was still on the ropes and deep in debt when Osborne took the helm a few years later.

Osborne, now in his 14th year as president of Artpark, has turned that around using the successful summer concert program as a catalyst to rebuild and renew interest in the scenic park on the Niagara Gorge. Artpark had a $5 million budget last year, which allowed the park to make needed upgrades and repairs to the infrastructure and bring back visual arts programs that were once the cornerstone of the park.

Osborne, a native of Texas who grew up in Oklahoma, is the father of three grown boys from two previous marriages and has made his home in the Lewiston area with his third wife of 18 years, Nancy.

What was your background before you came to Artpark?

I went to school and trained as a performer, an opera singer, and after I finished my graduate work at Indiana University, I was in Italy on a Fulbright, mostly just learning opera roles. When I came back, I decided I needed to get a job and ended up teaching. I taught at Texas Tech and then went to Southwest Missouri and then ended up in Memphis, primarily as an assistant dean and sort of got into administration. That led to being hired to run the opera company in Memphis. Then I started a summer music theater and got hired to run a ballet company there, pretty much all based on financial successes and artistic successes. I just kept going in that field and never went back to performing. I ended up going to Connecticut and ran three major organizations at the same time for several years, the Connecticut Opera, the Hartford Ballet and the Hartford Chamber Orchestra. We built an art center there, and all the organizations were housed in the same complex.

It sounds like you moved around a lot.

Not really. I spent 10 years in Memphis, 20 years in Connecticut. Now I’ve been here for 14 years. I make my way where I go.

What was it like when you arrived here at Artpark 14 years ago?

I was excited about coming here. The tours showed me a lot of opportunity, especially in visual arts. A lot of those spaces were being used in ways we couldn’t use today because they were losing money and didn’t realize it. It turns out that it was good for me and for Artpark because I’ve done a lot of work with other organizations that were financially troubled and was able to come up with a formula that would get rid of the debt and figure out a way to pay the bills.

Artpark and Co. was in debt?

David Grapes, the executive director, was primarily a theater artist. He tried to keep Artpark going primarily the same way things had been going when the state was running the park. His big thing was musical theater. Over the course of those three years as a private company, they ended up building up a deficit of $700,000 or $800,000. This is because when the state was running the park, they had a budget, and they always exceeded the budget. They would always grapple around and come up with additional funds to pay off losses beyond the budget, but under the new contract, the state had no responsibility.

Were you aware of this debt when you took over?

They didn’t tell me that when I interviewed for the job, but I don’t think the board even knew. They gave me the audit for the third season, which was their worst season, but the season wasn’t over. I think it is typical for these types of organizations that when they get into financial trouble, the board isn’t even aware that it’s happening until it is almost too late.

But at one time the state supported Artpark.

Historically from the very beginning, Artpark was almost a 100 percent subsidized by state funding. Any money they could get from ticket sales was just icing on the cake. That’s why they sold tickets for $3 and $5 in the theaters. The visual programs grew enormously in the early years. At one point the visual arts program, such as crafts and on-site sculpture and performing arts, were given $1 million a year, and this is in 1970s dollars.

How did you get Artpark back on track?

The key so far to funding Artpark has been the popularity of our formerly free concerts. Taking advantage of something in the marketplace that wasn’t being utilized previously. It’s been phenomenally successful. People want to be outside, and it is a beautiful space. It grew from nothing. Everything you see up there has been built. It started with a tiny little stage built by our stage hands with an awning over the stage.

It also sounds like you are trying to restore the visual arts.

In recent years we have been trying to restore the variety of art that we offer here at Artpark. You certainly will see a lot of that this summer. In celebration of the 40th anniversary, we will have 40 for 40, over-40 artists who will come back to put up installations or display their art in our gallery.

What are you most proud of?

The thing I am most proud of is that we have a financially stable Artpark. We built a lot of good facilities that weren’t here before. We have been able to totally renovate the interior of the theater. We built a new amphitheater. We transformed Artpark and re-established Artpark into one of the cultural leaders of Western New York.