Susan Harris calls herself a community artist.
Besides taking time to create art - which, in her case, takes the form of multimedia, photography and music - Harris works to improve her community through art as the director of the Cayuga County Arts Council.
“We try to help people understand the way arts make life better,” she said. “The arts allow you a moment to enjoy life, and if the arts council can provide that, that's what we're all about.”
Perhaps the most visible project on Harris's plate is the Auburn Schine's Theater on South Street. With roughly $7 million in repairs needed to restore it to its original 1925 shape, the John Eberson-designed theater - one of only 33 in the country - is several years away from seating patrons again.
Bringing back the Schine's requires not only steady work to arrange the renovations, but securing the funding for those renovations while working with the city of Auburn, including Mike Long, the city's director of capital projects and grants.
“She's very energetic and excited about working in the area of the arts, and she certainly brings a new enthusiasm to the Schines Theatre project,” Long said.
Some Auburn residents may not share Harris' patience, but she believes they will welcome its return to downtown Auburn.
“The theater's always had a special place in the hearts of Auburn,” she said. “I'll be outside washing the windows and people will walk by and say they were here when they were little.”
The theater's art deco architecture - most visible in its curved ceilings and door designs - is accentuated by a stellar theme consisting of shooting star fixtures on the lobby ceilings and an on-screen setting sun before films begin.
Harris looks forward to reviving this theme due to the theater's placement on the National Register of Historic Places, which mandates it be returned as close to its prior condition as possible. She feels the unique experience of a fully restored Schines Theatre is essential to revitalizing downtown Auburn.
“We have to think about preserving our unique identity, which is downtown, if we want to get people to come here instead of other cities,” she said. “And the Schines Theatre is crucial to that.”
Harris hopes to complement the theater's classic look with contemporary touches, such as wireless internet, a small lobby gallery and a sound recording system that can produce CD copies of concerts as soon as they conclude.
Combined with the Cayuga Museum's Case Research Lab, the restored Schines Theatre could cement Auburn as a key setting for the advancement of film.
“There are people across the country interested in the history of media,” Harris said. “We could put together a real cultural tourism package.”
The traffic attracted by films, theatrical productions and live music at the theater could diffuse to the rest of downtown and benefit its businesses. The Schines Theatre is also crucial in this respect as the focal point of the city's proposed theater festival.
“We can't bring back Auburn if we don't bring back the Schines,” Harris said.
Although the theater may be most prominent among Harris' projects as the arts council's director, her efforts extend to several other endeavors. The council has an active hand in the Adams Foundation Piano Series, which brings world-renowned performers to Auburn twice a year.
Harris also oversees the council's organization of the annual Casey Park New Year's Eve celebration. She is currently working with the Cayuga Wine Trail to install the art work of local artists along the scenic byway.
But Harris envisions the council eventually exerting a more pervasive influence on the lives of Cayuga County citizens. During her tenure as director, she hopes to see the council take on a community outreach role. Harris laments the loss of art in schools and feels the council could fill that gap with art workshops for children and adolescents.
“One of the reasons kids don't like school is 'It's boring,' but the arts make it fun,” she said. “Art is a source of pride and encouragement, and it's vital to having quality of life.”
Harris took on the role of director with the council following years of service as a grant reviewer for non-profit organizations, including the New York State Council on the Arts.
A native of Ohio, Harris first visited central New York in 1988 to pick up grape juice for a friend. She would later attend Wells College as its first book arts minor.
“At Wells, we were taught that community service is something you're really supposed to step up and do,” she said.
Harris continues taking that lesson to heart while working to secure the grants needed to bring the Schines Theatre back and, in the process, bring art into the lives of Cayuga County residents lacking it.
“The arts are about including everyone,” she said. “I'm fairly blessed getting to do this.”
Staff writer David Wilcox can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 245 or email@example.com