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Tony Sias prepares to take the helm at Karamu

Tony Sias chief executive officer of Karamu House


Last Friday, Tony Sias stepped down from his position as director of arts education for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) in order to become the chief executive officer of the storied Karamu House, which marks it's 100th year in 2015.
 
Fresh Water sat down with this charismatic Clevelander to get the low down on where he's been, where's he's going and how he intends to measure up to one the area's most beloved and historic cultural venues.
 
What's your priority list when you step into Karamu?
 
The first thing is really building a relationship with the staff, to hear what their dreams are and get a better understanding of what people do. The other piece is communicating to community that the doors are open and there's a place for you -- the community -- to come to Karamu, to understand programming, to have an influence on what we do and how we do it.

That’s to say whoever comes through the door, that we celebrate who they are and use their culture, their ethnicity as a positive; and that we learn and build off of that.

This also goes so far beyond race and ethnicity. It's around the economic differences, or those who may have special needs. How do we reengage the millennials? How do we celebrate all of these people? How do we integrate them into the larger Karamu family?

It's really about community.

How do you make that happen on the ground?

I would love to see a more robust education program that is skill based and sequential in its instruction so that we can develop young talent over the years, so that Karamu is truly a performing arts training ground—visual and performing arts.
 
I also see us providing a culturally responsive pedagogical approach to instruction so that we are a place where anyone -- children, families -- can come to get formal training in the arts. This isn't only about young people; this is about lifelong learners.

We'd like to be able to contribute to being a premier place where, if films or commercials are being shot, that we have the talent to be a "first stop." That would be important to me.
 
How does that fit into your at-large vision of Karamu?
 
Being an administrator that has a strong arts background will really help bolster moving this agenda forward in terms of three very distinctive buckets while aligning all of them. When I say three buckets, there is the theater, the day care center and the educational program. How do these things become aligned and sequential in all of the services?
 
That's exciting to me: to be able to say, how do we not only create an alignment, but how do we solidify and crystallize the brand, the mission, the vision, and the core values?
 
It's a whole bunch of great ingredients. How do we sequence this recipe? How do we put it together at the right time to make it what we want it to be?
 
It's building on the success of past and re-envisioning what this should be for the next 100 years.
 
Are you a bit melancholy that you're leaving the school district just as the dazzling new Cleveland School of the Arts building is finally open?
 
After 15 years, it's been fantastic run at the school district. To have watched students come into various programs, to see the power of the arts with them and to see them move on and graduate; I feel like the completion of that building was a completion for me.
 
When I got to the school district, there was all this conversation over whether this building was going to happen or not going to happen. And to be so Intimately involved in design process, to have worked with community stakeholders making that happen, it's a dream come true.
 
And it's a great end to a chapter—or to a book—or to a chapter. I don't know if it's a book or a chapter (laughs).
 
What has driven this big change?
 
I have told people I left a very secure job with a great pension and great benefits, but it's so important take a risk and look at the potential of how my life can change and how Karamu's life as an institution can change. It was important for me to say, 'Hey, you have a passion for this. You only live once. You love this institution. Why not go and invest all that you have in it to make it a better place?'
 
I'm passionate about Karamu. It's a national treasure.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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