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NYSTI fights proposed merger with Egg

NYSTI fights proposed merger with Egg

Officials with the New York State Theatre Institute are waging a campaign to prevent being merged wi

Officials with the New York State Theatre Institute are waging a campaign to prevent being merged with the Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corporation, also known as The Egg.

NYSTI is lobbying state leaders to keep the proposal off the legislative calendar, which will be set by Jan. 15. In the midst of uncertainty, it is also planning for its next theater season on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy. NYSTI officials say they are against the merger because the two organizations have different missions.

NYSTI is a professional theater organization that caters to families and school audiences, participates in cultural exchanges with foreign artists and develops new plays and musicals. Staffers teach educational classroom and summer programs to children.

An internship program teaches teens and young adults various aspects of theater, including costume and set design, sound and lighting and acting. More than 1,500 interns have worked and studied at NYSTI, including Russell Sage theater students.

NYSTI has hosted more than 30 foreign artists or companies.

In addition, some of NYSTI’s interns are so-called “persons in need of supervision” — minors from unstable families or who are at risk of dropping out of school or getting in trouble.

Some of those youths become very successful after the program, said Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, NYSTI artistic director.

Snyder said NYSTI and The Egg have completely different missions, as The Egg is a performance venue and not involved in education like NYSTI. An attempt to unite them would fail, as it did in the 1980s, she said.

The two organizations originally operated under one umbrella but split in 1989, and NYSTI moved to Troy. A 1995 proposal to merge them again was dropped.

“We know you can’t be a servant to two masters,” Snyder said.

But state officials view the two organizations as similar.

“At their core, these two organizations have very similar missions — putting on performances and contributing to cultural enrichment of our state,” said Matt Anderson, spokesman for the state budget office.

The proposal is in Gov. David Paterson’s 2009-10 budget, meaning that any merger would take place starting in April. “NYSTI’s work would continue uninterrupted through a seamless transition,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the move is proposed along with many others to help close a $15.4 billion budget deficit. The merger would save $274,000.

“We expect that with all proposals, there would be a full dialogue,” he said.

But Snyder said NYSTI would willingly accept an appropriate budget cut to avoid a merger. The organization is prepared to slice everything except staffers, cutting costumes and sets to bare bones and reusing those materials, she said.

“We’re ready to do it. We’ll be cutting down all over the place,” she said.

NYSTI is reaching out to elected officials and has gotten its union, United University Professions, on board to lobby state leaders as well.The support of UUP’s sister union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), could have an even bigger impact, said John Romeo, president of the NYSTI chapter of UUP. “We can attack from both angles,” he said.

On Thursday, NYSTI’s board of directors adopted a resolution opposing the proposed merger, and it plans to forward it to Paterson with the signature of each board member.

Board president David Morris said that in the short time since the proposal was announced in late December, there has been a large outpouring of support for NYSTI. “Let’s hope that they come to their senses and this doesn’t happen,” he said of state leaders.

Snyder is suspicious of the proposal despite state officials’ assurances that NYSTI would remain in Troy with its 32 employees.

“If they really wanted to merge, they would have called us all together and said, ‘We need to streamline operations. How can we work together?’ ” she said. “I believe the focus of this legislation is really wanting to eliminate the leadership of NYSTI.”

Under a merger, a newly constituted 21-member board would decide how to handle leadership and staffing of the two organizations.

But only three of those board members would be appointed from NYSTI, and the rest would be The Egg’s board members.

“When it comes to a board vote, it’s very clear what the outcome will be,” Snyder said.

She said current NYSTI board members are vetted with a criminal background check and must have certain arts credentials.

“The Egg board members are purely political appointments,” she said.

Egg executive director Peter Lesser referred a call for comment to the state Budget Division.

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