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Director Reflects on His Tenure at Long Island Arts Camp

“Oh, I wish Usdan had existed for me,” Dale Lewis said, with both a sigh and a smile, in his office at the Long Island arts day camp, which is unusual in both its name and its offerings.

The sigh, no doubt, referred to his Usdan-less boyhood. The smile may well have been prompted by his role for more than three decades as the executive director of Usdan (pronounced YOOZ-dan, and named for one of the camp’s founders).

As he prepared for his 32nd and final summer at the helm of the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, Mr. Lewis, 64, spoke of the past and the future. Life after Usdan beckons: Come October, he will head a new philanthropic arts fund he has created under the umbrella of the Long Island Community Foundation.


Students at Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, in Huntington. CreditCourtesy of Usdan Center

But for a few moments one morning this spring, his thoughts went back to the young Dale Lewis, a cellist who played at Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Recital Hall) at age 12 as a winner of a strings competition. A career as a performer, arts educator and administrator followed. Though he attended sleep-away camps as a boy, Mr. Lewis recalled, they were much smaller and more music-focused than Usdan, which has a student body of about 1,600 every summer. He wished he’d had more “interdisciplinary opportunity” during his formative years, he said.

So he helped create the opportunity for others. Under his tenure, Usdan, in the town of Huntington on about 200 wooded acres, has expanded from 30 to 67 programs across the range of performing and visual arts, and beyond. Chess, for example, made the cut because it helps develop what Mr. Lewis calls “critical thinking and problem-solving.” Over the years, Usdan’s campers have included some future stars, like the actress Natalie Portman and the singers Mariah Carey and Jane Monheit. Other alumni have joined major music and dance ensembles, become arts educators and administrators or just enjoyed being “lovers of the arts,” he said.

“Alumni are continually in touch with each other” on Facebook, Mr. Lewis said, and there even have been some marriages among former campers. All of which clearly gives Mr. Lewis pleasure. But his mind these days is also on Arts Reach, the fund focusing on Long Island arts issues and education that he plans to introduce in October. Lauren Brandt Schloss, the former executive vice president of Studio in a School, an arts education organization in New York, will take over as the camp’s executive director on Oct. 1.

The goals of the Arts Reach Fund reflect Mr. Lewis’s experiences at Usdan, he said. Mr. Lewis spoke of camp administrators working with donors to create “micro-grants” for Long Island high schools in high-needs communities. The grants enabled some students to get private music lessons “for the first time in their lives,” Mr. Lewis said, or to rent instruments for at-home play and practice. He said that “it gives them the edge that they’re going to need” for statewide competitions, or entry to college or a music conservatory.

Mr. Lewis said he wanted Arts Reach to expand this program to include more school districts. Another venture would subsidize the administrative staffs of local nonprofit groups. “I’ve seen so many small arts organizations struggle or even fail because of their lack of access to relatively small amounts of money,” he said, commenting that even minimal funding could help these nonprofits in fund-raising or marketing efforts. A third program is waiting in the wings: It would teach professional musicians — in particular those who don’t have a background in music education — to work with adult amateur musicians and others in nonschool settings, like community centers. The program would broaden the opportunities for performers “to ply their craft, to make a living,” Mr. Lewis said, while sharing their talents with others and enhancing local arts activities.

For the moment, though, Mr. Lewis is concentrating on the two preliminary Arts Reach projects. He is discreet about financial details this early in the game. But Arts Reach has initial “commitments” from individuals and foundations, which are projected to support about 50 high school students and at least five community arts organizations, he said.

As for additional funding, he is optimistic. “There are so many donors who will embrace these concepts,” he said. “Some I know, and others I know of.” Getting these prospective donors on board seems to be a task he relishes.

“One of the things I love doing is saying, ‘Hop in the car!’ ” Mr. Lewis said. “ ‘Give me a day, and let’s go see something.’ ”