OSWEGO — John Shaffer said his first encounter with the performing arts came when he was “literally dragged” to theatre tryouts by a college roommate. He recently accepted the role of a lifetime as the new director of SUNY Oswego’s Artswego program.
The journey from the stage at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he graduated as a philosophy major and theatre minor, through grassroots arts programs to working for the National Endowment for the Arts to grant writing for Artswego exposed him to the importance of collaboration and creativity.
“I’m excited about Artswego’s double mission — to both enrich the learning experience on the campus and to provide the wider region with the best possible arts experience,” Shaffer said. “The arts let us journey across cultures and time and celebrate the richness of human experience. They open us to new possibilities and ways of seeing.”
He succeeds the retiring Mary Avrakotos, whom he described as “a force of nature” in building the regional reputation for Artswego, and he also noted the organization’s collaborative spirit.
He points to a pair of long sectional couches in the Artswego offices in Mahar Hall where the organization’s committee gathers.
“It works because there are people who fill all these seats and provide ideas and connections,” Shaffer said. “Our programs come together through the energy of many people from diverse backgrounds and academic departments.”
Road to Oswego
In addition to acting and theatre tech work in college, Shaffer had a work-study position as business manager for the theatre department.
The department director encouraged him to look into the field of arts administration, “which was just coming into being,” Shaffer recalled. He earned his master’s in arts management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of only two institutions that offered a graduate degree at the time.
As managing director of the Spirit Square Arts Center in North Carolina, he coordinated a grassroots effort to bring together arts organizations and local businesses to create a vibrant downtown district that included shops, performance spaces, a gallery and organizational offices.
Shaffer also brings nearly a decade of experience from the National Endowment for the Arts, where highlights included managing a study of arts support in several countries “that became important in advocacy efforts for increased public funding,” he said. Shaffer also managed a challenge grant program that helped fledgling organizations learn how to become sustainable.
But Shaffer felt another calling, attending seminary and becoming the priest-in-charge of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling, W.Va.
When seeking future direction, a family meeting pointed them toward Central New York.
“My wife Barbara wanted to go back to school for her master’s in library science, and our youngest daughter wanted a girls’ ice hockey program, ” he said.
The bishop of Central New York suggested Syracuse University for his wife’s studies and Baldwinsville, where he became rector of Grace Episcopal Church.
With Barbara Shaffer taking a job at Penfield Library — where she is now director — the family relocated to Oswego, and “Mary somehow found out about my background with the NEA and got me involved here,” he said.
The upcoming Artswego season will “range from the highly creative dance repertoire of the Brian Brooks Moving Company to Cantus, an extraordinary men’s vocal ensemble that performs everything from Gregorian chant to the work of contemporary composers,” Shaffer said. “We also look forward to a performance called Celtic Nights, involving Celtic dance and song, a celebratory gift to the community around St. Patrick’s Day.”
He is already anticipating future seasons, looking forward to filling seats at performances after filling those couches in Mahar Hall.
“Artswego is all about linking ideas provided by many people,” Shaffer said. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It builds upon the creative energies of the faculty, the campus and the community.”