Mark Chaires sees his new role as executive director of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center as the flip side of his previous career in law enforcement.
Chaires, who stepped down as Schenectady police chief on Dec. 30, said taking care of a community is about “weeding and seeding.” Police officers weed out crime; organizations like the arts center plant the seeds for a better community.
“We’re going to work hard to expand this place and improve programming so more and more kids want to come here and help them stay out of trouble and be successful,” he said.
Chaires acknowledges it has been a steep learning curve since he started at the center Dec. 31. He is trying to soak in as much as he can about filling out administrative paperwork, applying for grants and complying with rules and regulations.
At the police department, he had a much larger staff, including a secretary, payroll clerk, accounts receivable clerk and human resources officer. Chaires and part-time workers juggle those functions at the Schenectady Street arts center, whose programs include afterschool arts and crafts, African and steel drumming, a celebration of Kwanzaa at the New York State Museum and the Juneteenth event that commemorates the end of slavery.
The biggest change, though, is the daily battle a nonprofit faces to survive.
“You’re always going to have a police department in some way, shape or form. In the nonprofit world, you have to keep yourself running, especially in this economy,” he said.
It has been a rough couple of years for the center, which serves roughly 1,400 children annually, with budget deficits and administrative turnover. Longtime director Miki Conn retired at the end of 2010, after 11 years. She had succeeded her mother, Margaret Cunningham, who founded the organization in 1968.
Conn had added and expanded events such as Juneteenth, even though it lost money. At one point, the center was losing as much as $14,000 per month.
Conn’s replacement was Doretha “Penny” Holmes, who came to the organization with 25 years of experience in nonprofits, including as chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany and acting director of the YWCA of Troy and Cohoes.
Hamilton Hill Arts Center President Karim Adeen-Hasan credited Holmes with putting the organization, whose budget is in the $250,000 range, back on sound financial footing.
After just one year at the helm, at a salary of roughly $41,000, Holmes received what Chaires described as an offer she couldn’t refuse and took a position as director of marketing and outreach for the Ark Charter Community School in Albany and director of the its afterschool program.
Chaires had planned to complete his doctorate in criminal justice and teach at Schenectady County Community College, but he believed he could step in at the center. He has been on the board of directors for many years, and his children used to go there. As a child, he lived in a house on Strong Street not far from the facility.
“I always had a personal attachment to this place,” he said. “I had a desire to see the art center succeed.”
Chaires said he likes being around the children and the energy they bring. The center is buzzing with activity in the afternoon and early evenings and on Saturday, according to Valerie Lewis, art outreach supervisor.
“We do pottery, sewing, homework, painting — just a variety of crafts. You name it, it goes on here,” she said.
Upstairs, children learn steel drumming from Aston “Robot” Ellis. Ellis conducted them as they played music from “The Lion King.”
Emani Johnson, 10, enjoys playing the drums, which she added are not hard to learn.
“I wanted to learn more about different cultures,” she said.
Downstairs, one group of children write letters to the troops overseas.
“Thank you for keeping our people safe. Keep up the good work!” wrote 7-year-old Darryl Legree.
Other children were making “blot art,” which involves dripping different colors of paint on a sheet of white paper, then folding it in half and applying pressure. Then, they open it up to reveal what they created.
Eight-year-old Moses Grant said he likes coming to the center.
“It’s fun because you get to decorate and stuff,” he said.
His mother, Latara Armstead, said she likes what the center teaches children.
“They’re able to express the artist inside of them,” she said.
Armstead attended the center as a child, did an internship there and now volunteers. Multiple generations attending the center is common, Lewis said.
She attended when she was younger and has been teaching for 40 years. Even Chaires taught programs there for a time before his law enforcement career. His local roots make him a good fit, says Adeen-Hasan.
“There’s a familiarity with him versus somebody new coming into here,” he said.
Adeen-Hasan said Chaires will help improve the center’s brand.
“We very rarely have men of color who are involved in the leadership of our organizations,” he said.
Chaires is working gratis, according to Adeen-Hasan, but the center plans to work out some form of compensation.
Holmes has agreed to serve as a consultant and meet with Chaires weekly.
Chaires will take a closer look at the fiscal impact of each program to decide if they are worthwhile, according to Adeen-Hasan. For example, the board may need to determine whether Juneteenth should be a one-day event, instead of two or three days.
Chaires agreed fundraising is a priority, a challenge in the continued sluggish economy. In the past, the center relied on grants, such as a $10,000 state award to put on Juneteenth.
Chaires said while grants are always helpful, the center doesn’t want to create programs that are solely grant dependent. When the grant is gone, the program goes away.
“We want to have programs that have staying power, continuity,” he said.
That way, he said, children can be in the program for many years and center officials will be able to see their long-term growth.
Chaires said he wants to take a step back and look at past fundraising efforts to see what has worked and what hasn’t.
He added that he would like the center to partner with other organizations, such as Proctors, the Myers Dance Center, Boys and Girls Clubs and the Carver Community Center.
If there is a program the Hamilton Hill Arts Center isn’t offering, maybe one of those organizations is. For example, the center could provide funding to send children to the Proctors summer drama or improv camp.
Chaires said the goal is exposing children to as many different opportunities as possible.
Chaires said he wants to preserve programs that have worked well in the past, such as African dance and drumming, but expand into new areas, including visual and English language arts.
Improving youth literacy is another focus.
“You can’t appreciate the arts, enjoy the arts — literature, theater — unless you can read and write and have a good grasp of the English language,” Chaires said.
The center is in preliminary conversations with Schenectady school officials about setting up some type of afterschool program to improve reading.
“We’re going to find ways we can support what the school district does. We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Adeen-Hasan agreed with the focus on literacy because many students in the community lack core skills.
Another priority for Chaires is to assess the physical needs of the building, which is structurally sound but dates to the 1950s. The furnace and windows are not energy efficient.
Chaires would also like to move his office to another part of the building and knock out the wall to open up space and create bigger rooms more suited for the dance and drumming programs.
Chaires believes his experience as police chief will help in setting the vision for the organization. Although the board hired him for one year, Chaires said he is not approaching the job as an interim position.
“I’m here for the long haul,” he said.
Chaires is putting in close to 40 hours a week, but they may not all be in the office. Some time may be spent at home and at various events. He said his wife joked “it doesn’t sound like you retired.”
At 57, he doesn’t consider himself retired. He merely went from one job to another.
“I’d love to work until I can’t work,” he said.