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Caffe Lena – An Example Of How To Flourish In A Pandemic

It seems contradictory to say that when an organization has been severely hurt economically, it has also prospered.   It is, however, true of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. 

Established in 1960, in 2020 the venue saw the lowest earned revue period in their history.  Mostly because it has not had a ticket sale or income from food sales since last March.

However, generous foundation grants, patron donations and earned income from unexpected sources have kept the organization afloat.

Indeed, Caffe Lena has innovated to build new business models. They have become a leader in offering live streamed performances, opened an educational component to their operation and have been a type of outreach source for many individuals and groups needing a secure facility with digital capabilities.

They have done more than survive. They are a model of how a performing space can be an inspiration to a community in troubled times and act as a supportive resource for musicians and other area arts organizations.

Not only has the Caffe been a site for their own streaming events, they have donated the listening room and their state of the art technical equipment to many not-for-profit groups for digital events and fundraisers.  In just the past several weeks Opera Saratoga, Home Made Theatre and the Musicians of Ma’alwyck have utilized the space for various events.

In a recent telephone interview, Sarah Craig, Lena’s executive director, says one of the things of which she is most proud is that in the past year Caffe Lena has cut checks to over 600 performers totaling more than $100,000.  It all came from their virtual performances. 

They do not charge for viewing their online concerts.  Instead they have what is called a tip jar where a viewer can make a donation.  The proceeds are split between the performer and Caffe Lena.  38% of this year’s income came from this revenue source.

Craig says, “We helped ease the pain for many people struggling in this time of need.”  However, she refuses to take full credit for the money raised.  “This is a community effort,” she says.  “If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we’re all in this together.” 

As an example of being resourceful, she points to Lena’s “School of Music.” Shortly after the shutdown, while brainstorming ways to raise revenue, someone suggested starting an online program offering music lessons to youngsters.  Craig said initial estimates thought they might get a dozen students.  They now have 200 people, many of whom are adults, taking lessons, all of whom pay tuition.

Craig feels this openness to new ideas and willingness to initiate them without layers of bureaucracy has been critical to their survival.

She describes a Zoom meeting of the 6-member staff, saying, “If someone comes up with what seems a good idea, we look around and if there are no dissenting voices we figure out a way to do it – immediately.  I think of it as the ‘throw the macaroni against the wall’ decision making system.  What sticks is what we go with.” 

She adds that a trusting, supportive and energetic board of directors empowers and encourages her to work quickly and for the common good.

Actually, it’s more like the three I system - improvisation, innovation and intuition. It was this process in 2016 when a decision was made that made survival in 2020 possible.

Caffe Lena started streaming shows in 2010.  Craig explains that because most shows were selling out the 80-seat venue, it was a way of reaching a larger audience. It was, at best, a rudimentary camera system and only a modest success.

When the space was renovated in 2016, and seating expanded to 110, they applied for grants to cover an $80,000 three camera robotic streaming system. 

What seemed to be a fringe improvement turned into a visionary investment. Today Caffe Lena is classified as a broadcast studio, which permits so much activity within the space.   

Craig is about to celebrate her 26th year at Caffe Lena and though 2020 has been the most challenging by far.  She jokes, “We’ve always existed on the edge of an abyss.  We are used to surviving in uncertain circumstances.”

She agrees that the immediate future is still uncertain and will not predict when limited audiences will be permitted to attend shows.   However, she is positive full capacity will not happen until at least October.

Craig is self-effacing about her role as a manger, saying, “I’m not a person that could turn around an organization and I would not be effective running Proctors or SPAC. My skills are pertinent to this space.”

However, when asked the qualities of a strong arts leader, she answered, “An organization has to have a personality that reflects their mission.  You have to be able to change and lead, rather than try to catch up with the latest trend.  Most of all, you have to love the organization, the talent that performs there, and your audience.”

That’s a perfect description of Sarah Craig, executive director of Caffe Lena. 

For information about Caffe Lena go to caffelena.org

In the interests of full disclosure, I served on the board of Caffe Lena from 2010-2015.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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