Dinaw Mengestu, the well-known Ethiopian-American novelist and writer, would regularly walk past the Bernie Wohl Center of the Goddard Riverside Community Center at 647 Columbus Avenue. In 2015, Goddard Riverside was one of the recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Community Big Read awards and selected Mengesteu’s novel, "Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," which centered on the lives of three African immigrants trying to live out the American dream. It was only then that he actually stepped into the building. He told an Upper West Side audience there to hear him discuss his work that he never knew “about the magic that was going on inside.”
The person responsible for creating this magic has been Susan Macaluso (or “Mac”, as many call her), the director of Goddard Riverside’s community arts program. Mac will be moving on after over a decade at the agency. She leaves behind a vibrant, thoroughly eclectic neighborhood arts program that has become one of the Upper West Side’s veritable off-off Broadway playhouses, as well as a venue for those who want to showcase their wares but are eschewed by the downtown scene.
She credits her success more to serendipity than a well thought out plan. (Full disclosure: I hired Susan to be the director of Community Arts when I was the executive director of Goddard Riverside.)
“It was 2006. I had been laid off from a job in a production company and was looking for work. Goddard Riverside hired me to organize a memorial for the previous Executive Director, Bernie Wohl, who had just passed away. We created a visual and oral script, which read like a history of the Upper West Side, and the impact the beloved Bernie had on the entire community. They liked what I did and hired me as their director of communications.”
In 2011, the drab NYCHA site at Columbus Ave. and 91 St. was renovated and a beautiful community arts space with a theater, and dance and art studio was created. Susan saw tremendous possibilities for reaching a wider swath of the community by maximizing the use of the space.
“The gray walls became a beautiful multi-purpose space. The agency had raised a lot of money to convert that center into a state-of-the-art theater, and we needed to develop an arts program and real cultural hub that was commensurate with the wonderful space. I had connections in the arts world and was asked to take on the task of creating a community arts program from scratch. I did both the communications and community arts jobs for a while, but the work in community arts took off and the position became a full-time one.”
“The Big Read was one of the community arts program’s first visible projects. We partnered with the local libraries and bookstores. We got hundreds of people reading and talking about the same book the book - people from our own programs and those who never heard of Goddard Riverside. The Big Read demonstrated what community arts was all about. It really helped put us on the map.”
Building on Goddard Riverside’s social justice mission, community arts, at its core, has aimed to be an inclusive program accessible to everyone and expose many different populations to the arts. “With that guiding philosophy, we started to develop the program by inviting in groups that were hungry to perform. That was the gift. I very much had a blank canvas and freedom to create what I wanted.”
Running the community arts program also requires one to be a good juggler. “We curate an entire season but curate it loosely with a balance of music, theater, and dance. We have hosted an UWS live Tuesday series of Afro Roots, jazz, classical music performances, comedy nights and play readings. Audiences have been treated to The Harlem Chambers Players, the world-renowned Israeli Chamber Project, and a WQXR panel discussion on classical music.
Savion Glover has tap danced on our stage, and Joy Behar took a writing workshop. We also have welcomed emerging artists who have no other place to showcase their work. I was introduced to the Hudson Warehouse Theater Company, which won a Goddard Riverside Good Neighbor Award for their free performances in Riverside Park. They have become our theater group in-residence and help with venue management work. “
Promoting Social Justice
Susan’s creativity and ability to work with a variety of artists is one of her greatest assets. She rarely turns away a group. “We are open to whatever bubbles up from the community. One day a person called who had just completed a script on guns and gang violence. She was very persistent. I met with her and she showed me the script. I wasn’t sure it would draw an audience. I decided to take the risk and let her perform the piece. She really packed the house and led a wonderful panel of people who have been affected by gun violence -- not people who just talk about it but those affected. Many of our own vulnerable teens participated.”
Susan credits her inclination towards using the arts to promote social justice to her growing up in Corning, New York. “I feel like I learned about rejection and fairness at a young age. I was at Madame Helene’s ballet school in Corning. There was a recital for Peter Pan. I knew that the role of Peter Pan would be mine. I was tiny, acrobatic and knew that I would be perfect for the role. I envisioned myself flying over the audience. However, 'born stiff' Rosemary got the part. I was just crushed. Year’s later I heard that Rosemary’s dad had just received a big promotion at Corning. I learned about corruption, too.”
A Lasting Legacy
Susan will leave behind a lasting, incomparable legacy. “Personally, this role has consumed my life in a good way. I have had this great gift to be an arts entrepreneur without the risk, and fortunate to have the incredible commitment of the Goddard Riverside community which believes deeply in the power of the arts to affect change.”
She added, “I thought I would be very sad and nostalgic planning my retirement but I am not. I am ready to turn the arts program over to someone else who can build on what we’ve created. I also want to be more available to my daughter and grandchildren, look into my own family history and spend more time in Italy. I am especially proud to leave behind the Performing Arts Conservatory – an intense summer youth program that teaches creative thinking, discipline and working as a team in a non-judgmental way. We may not be producing Broadway stars. But, many of our kids enter the conservatory thinking they have no talent. We show them that they do.”
For more information on the Goddard Riverside Community Arts Program, go to www.goddard.org.