I have been a big fan of Sarah Craig for a long time. Several years ago, I was producing an annual music series in Saratoga for Universal Preservation Hall. The second year in, I reached out to Sarah to co-create the 2015 season. The idea was to have a feel good moment with some inter-institutional collaboration – a cross pollination of audience. Working with her and the Caffe Lena team up close and personal helped hone my idea of what true mission orientation is. It’s in their DNA.
Being a big fan of what the O+ Festival in Kingston is doing for creatives and healthcare, I was super excited to see a similar program being promoted last month (October) at Caffe Lena. I just had to hear more about it and get a general update on the good things we see coming out of Saratoga that have Sarah’s fingerprints all over them.
Please state your name and role in the organization. How long have you been in this role? Can you share a little about your background?
I’m Sarah Craig, the Executive Director of Caffe Lena. I’ve held that title for 28 years, but the designation today bears little resemblance to the job I was first hired for. When I came on board in 1995, I had four years of experience fundraising for a nonprofit disarmament organization in Boston. I had also put in some years as an activist on LGBT and women’s issues and the war in Central America. Though I loved music, and in fact was totally immersed in the folk music of the late ’50s/60s Folk Revival at the time I applied to Lena’s, I wasn’t seeing the job as an extension of my peace work. I just felt like it was a nice way to make a living for a while. But over the years, my understanding of the role of arts in creating a healthy world has evolved. I’ve come to believe that, actually, the arts are our best hope for hanging onto our humanity in a world that increasingly commodifies and separates us.
When I first arrived, Caffe Lena was still finding its way as a nonprofit following the unexpected death of its owner, Lena Spencer, about five years earlier. We did an open mic and three shows a week. That was the entire output. The board hired me as the organization’s first Executive Director in an effort to move the Caffe toward more community service, develop a larger membership base, and find new ways to fund programming. We were on a slow, steady growth curve for about 20 years, but since the renovation and expansion of our venue in 2017, we’ve seen rapid growth. Pre-renovation, I had become an expert at keeping things going in a climate of extreme scarcity. Post-renovation, I struggled to manage our growing resources–both funds and staff. But I love to learn, and I’m doing a pretty good job now. I don’t have a direct role in managing shows anymore (I really miss it!) but having this fabulous staff has created very exciting opportunities to explore the potential of the organization to make a difference beyond putting on shows.
Can you tell us more about what the overall goals are at Caffe Lena what types of programming you are running there? How long has it been in existence?
The venue opened in 1960 at the peak of the Folk Revival, when folk was all the rage and there were hundreds and hundreds of folk clubs across the country. Most of that scene started fading in the late ’60s, and it was largely a memory by the ’80s. But Lena hung on in Saratoga, and when she died her friends decided to keep the place going as a nonprofit. Before she died, it achieved the distinction of being the longest running folk music venue in the country. Caffe Lena is a link to a hugely influential era in American music, and now it’s a fabulous venue full of new music, and it’s reimagining the role of a small music venue in creating healthy communities.
The list of programs we run is too long to print here, but it all boils down to music, connection, and learning. Here’s a typical week: four+ concerts by nationally touring headliners, a very popular alcohol-free open mic, a daytime jam circle for seniors, after-school group lessons for kids, and ‘Caffe Lena On the Road,’ which is a program that sends national acts to play for free at shelters, our local soup kitchen, nursing homes and schools.
My daily reminder-to-self goes like this: embrace music as an antidote to division and a path to health, as an alternative to the embattled society. I know it sounds pie-in-the-sky, but it’s honestly the lens through which I see this work. So, to answer your question about our overall goal: heal division and create health by bringing diverse people together to experience something emotional, thought-provoking and genuine.
Over the last few years, your programming has expanded into new areas that support a larger and more diverse communities. Can you share a bit about this evolution? I am especially excited about some of the collaborative connections you are making with other regional institutions like SPAC.
As far as collaboration among Saratoga arts organizations, I credit SPAC CEO Elizabeth Sobol with opening that door. Not too many people in her position would see a small organization like Caffe Lena as a valuable ally. But she does, and it’s mutual, and that has created wonderful cooperation between our organizations. We do an annual festival together, and we’re doing some off-season shows together in Spa Little Theater. And we get together and talk about stuff because we’re very much on the same page regarding the healing potential of the arts.
What’s a little more unexpected is our work with nonprofits outside the arts sector. We launched the aforementioned Caffe Lena ‘On the Road in 2018.‘ Our collaboration with social service organizations led me to realize that our community is packed with organizations that are trying to make the world healthier by treating addiction, supporting prisoners, housing people, building nature trails, preserving historic architecture, etc. I realized that we all have the same underlying motivation. And I also realized that the people these organizations are serving are like the characters our artists are singing about on our stage every night. Like folk ballads in the real world. So, that led me to launch an annual event called ‘TrueSongs,’ happening this year on November 11, as well as a ‘Community Classroom‘ series and a monthly nonprofit meet-up called ‘Serving Saratoga : Conversations with Community Leaders.’ This is how we’re drawing on our folk roots and reinventing how a small music venue can make an impact in its community.
Recently I was super excited to see you offer a health screening for creatives clinic for regional artists and musicians. Can you share a bit about this program specifically and how it came to be? How did you get the interest of your project partners lined up to make this a reality? Do you feel it was a success?
I go to music conferences where MusiCares, a project of the Grammy Foundation, funds dental clinics. Pretty much no working musicians have dental insurance, so the queue is out the door! After a show at Lena’s one night, Jill Burnham, who is a Saratoga blues singer and a nurse, approached me with the idea of doing something to address the health needs of uninsured musicians, and based on my conference experience, I knew what that could look like. The clinic we just held was the second annual. It got off the ground because Jill got Saratoga Hospital involved, and Saratoga Hospital got their Saratoga Community Health Center (free clinic) and Hudson Headwaters on board. And then the Caffe’s Operations Director, Mateo Vosganian, Drummer for Wild Adriatic, worked out a plan for holding the clinic in our performance space and he got all of his uninsured musician friends to show up and get checked out. In year one, the medical staff found some serious issues that needed attention, and they hooked those people up with meds and insurance. Amazing! After year one, Mateo and Jill realized there was no reason to limit the clinic to musicians. So this year, they put it out to all creatives, and attendance doubled. People are so terrified of finding out they have some medical condition that will require treatment that they avoid doctors. Well, this clinic is free, it’s in a familiar setting, the follow-up care is free, you can get free eyeglasses, you can get free custom ear protection that normally costs $200+. Again, I say amazing!
Is this a program that you are looking to continue? If so, how can other relevant organizations get on board to participate? Thinking specifically of sponsors and care providers…
MusiCares and BroadwayCares and O+ Festival in the Hudson Valley are organizations dedicated to this kind of service. Locally, Southern Adirondack Musicians Fund* (SAM Fund) has been helping out musicians with cash to address medical emergencies for years. We will keep our annual clinic going, and we would more than welcome medical and insurance providers to connect their services with our artist community through this event. Having a multi-year sponsor to underwrite the costs would be a dream come true. Just reach out to Mateo ([email protected]) with ideas or offers or questions.
Any programming or events you have coming up that you are especially excited about and would like to share?
Check out ‘TrueSongs‘ on November 11. It pairs songwriters with local people who have been helped through some big life challenge by a local nonprofit. The person tells their story on stage, and the songwriter performs an original song that gets to the emotional heart of that person’s journey. So, we’ve got a night coming where Sean Rowe, Holly McGarry of Honeysuckle, and other amazing songwriters are working with a person who lost their sight, an autistic child whose life was transformed by working with horses, a person who nearly lost her family farm, and more. You’ll see the true story of our world, and it won’t bum you out. And if you want just a normal, fabulous night of music, the list of options is endless. Roots, Jazz, Global, acoustic music of every kind. Exquisite sound–really the best anywhere. A seat no more than 30′ from the stage. Caffe Lena is a wonderful place to see a show!
EDITORS NOTE: *The Southern Adirondack Musicians (SAM) Fund is a not for profit (501 C 3) corporation dedicated to providing emergency financial assistance to musicians and their families who are facing serious, catastrophic health issues, injuries and death. A volunteer and locally oriented charity (serving Saratoga, Washington and Warren Counties), the S.A.M Fund’s mission is to keep the “wolf from the door” for those in need.