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Boomer Profile: Cornelia Seckel

By Marji Yablon
ART TIMES April online 2012

CORNELIA SECKEL is an avid gardener. Her 6400 square-foot vegetable and flower garden and the care she and her husband give their nearly two acres in the hamlet of High Woods, NY, attest to that.

But a single day – any day – in Seckel’s life makes it clear that her work as publisher of the nearly 28-year-old Art Times is what largely occupies her hours and concentration. In that role, she is never off-duty.  Largely, she finds that to be a good thing. 

True, she can cite among the reasons that she is always “on” the 300 emails received per day, and the round-the-clock schedule when an issue is due for publication.  But she can also list the places the job has taken her throughout the country and around the world – to China, Japan, Singapore, France, Holland and Hungary, among other destinations. She has visited arts establishments and attended performances of all kinds, from the Ringling International Festival in Sarasota, Florida, to the first World Cultural Summit at Versailles, and she has written about them in lead stories for Art Times and for her column, “Culturally Speaking.”

Even when she’s closer to home, Seckel appreciates the way the publication that “just pays our expenses,” offers something beyond income to her and her husband, Art Times editor, Raymond J. Steiner.  “It gives us a wonderful life. We’re surrounded by the arts, by wonderful, wonderful people – by brilliant people.” 

In the couple’s rustic High Woods home, the exposed beams in the ceilings hint at the building’s origins in the 1840’s.  Art volumes occupy the plentiful shelves.  Many are books Steiner has reviewed for Art Times.  Paintings seem to hang on every available section of most walls.  Some are by Steiner, some by other artists far and near.

Asked about hobbies, Seckel responds jovially, “I don’t do anything ‘otherwise’. I would say that 95 percent of what I do has some connection with Art Times.” That includes past and present invitations to jury or judge art shows or serve on boards of directors of arts and community organizations, including the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, Family of Woodstock, and the Kaatsbaan Dance Center in Tivoli. And it includes the four-year run of her segment on public radio station WAMC, for which she reported on the area arts scene Like her column, it was entitled “Culturally Speaking.”

On the rare occasions when Seckel travels for reasons unrelated to Art Times — to visit family, for instance — she nevertheless notices arts events in that area and is constantly aware how something she sees could help an artist or arts organization elsewhere. That’s nothing new.

“I’ve always been a resource person, connecting people with each other,” she says. 

In 1968, after graduating from Queens College, Seckel remained in Queens for a year teaching high school English, speech and dramatics. Then she moved to Lansing, Michigan with her first husband. For seven years, she taught English, job skills, literature, speech and dramatics.  She chaired the high school English department and the district’s Human Relations Committee, and directed theatre productions.  Then for three years, she coordinated and conducted training programs for a substance abuse agency. During her time in Michigan, she also volunteered at a crisis intervention center, something she eventually did at Family, too, after her marriage ended and she came back east to ponder where to live. Visiting her sister at a summer home in Shandaken, she discovered Woodstock and felt drawn to settle there.

In 1978, through the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce, Seckel helped develop a program that provided career counseling for high school students and opportunities for them to “shadow” people working in their fields of interest. By 1980, she was the program’s director and was based at Kingston High School.

There she got to know English teacher Ray Steiner.  They each felt an immediate connection.

“It was pretty instantaneous,” Seckel recalls. They were married several months later.  She explains, “I was 33.  He was 47.   If you don’t know by then where you’re going

During the first few months that they knew each other, “we argued all the time.  We got it all out.  Basically, we told each other, ‘This is my bottom line.’  His was ‘Don’t mess with my integrity.’” 

Hers, she recalls, was “Don’t mess with who I am.”  She shrugs.  “I’ve always been the boss at my jobs, and I’m the oldest child. I’ve never liked being told what to do.” 

True to their commitments to honor each other’s basic natures, Steiner never asks Seckel to pull back on the socializing, travel and theatre- or gallery hopping she loves to do.  And she doesn’t ask him to come along.  He does attend events such as art exhibits in order to review them, and has joined her on a few of her trips around the country and the world. 

“He’s very sociable one-on-one,” Seckel explains of her seemingly affable husband.  However: “He says that his greatest nightmare is that he’ll come with me to an arena that holds 50,000 people, and I won’t want to leave until I’ve spoken to every one of them.”

“She’s everything I’m not,” Steiner offers genially.

At their home, which is also Art Times headquarters, the two work cooperatively on domestic and professional projects.  A two-story addition to the house about 15 years ago gave them more living room-dining room space downstairs and more office space for her upstairs. Both of the new rooms feature bay windows that look out on Seckel’s garden and Steiner’s extensive landscaping work.

“Ray takes responsibility for much of the grounds work and I assist,” she explains, adding that she also does “the mechanical things – tune up the tiller, mower, generator. I’m the plumber and mechanic.  He’s the carpenter and groundskeeper.”  With the exception of her garden. There “he tills. I plant and weed and harvest.”

They split Art Times responsibilities, too. Steiner writes and reviews for the publication and, as editor, coordinates and proofreads the essays, fiction and poetry submitted from around the country and, sometimes, the world.  These include retrospectives on particular artists; essays on dance, theatre and music; their film writer’s humorous but knowledgeable musings on the world of movies; listings and reviews of the latest art books, and short-short stories which are currently scheduled for the next three years.  Seckel, meanwhile, lays out the pages and manages the business end. That includes advertising sales, public relations and distribution. 

Until recently, she and her husband personally delivered all copies of the free print publication to art venues in the surrounding area.  She has now hired someone to handle part of that.  She also sends about 500 packages of each issue to establishments in the Northeast and beyond.  A total of 20,000 copies are printed of every issue.

As for the online version, “People ask about our webmaster,” Seckel laughs. “That’s me.” 
Convinced that she wouldn’t learn that new skill in a large class, Seckel found tutors and joined a web users’ group that meets regularly.  Computer programs such as Dreamweaver, InDesign, PhotoShop and Excel are all part of her repertoire now.  Her latest goal, she says, is “optimizing the site” – attracting as many hits and online ads as possible to ArtTimesJournal.com which currently averages 500 hits per day. 

It all began out of frustration.  In 1984, Steiner had authored an article on jazz for a local arts council newsletter.  Over a period of months, the newsletter’s publication date was repeatedly postponed, until Seckel inquired as to the reason.  She was given “a laundry list of problems” causing the delay.
“‘What could be such a big deal?’ I said. ‘You go around and get advertisements to pay for your costs, put the thing together and have it printed!’”

That experience inspired Seckel and her husband to consider starting their own monthly literary journal and resource for the arts.

“I think it was his suggestion.  He believes it was mine.”

They researched why other such publications had failed and concluded that the nonprofit model could lead to funding problems and disruption of the original vision. They opened instead as a business.
That isn’t to suggest that Seckel wasn’t scared.  Until then, she had always held jobs with defined responsibilities and a steady paycheck.  As for experience: “I hadn’t even worked on a school paper or yearbook.”  But her husband’s optimism and encouragement helped.  Art Times debuted a few months after the couple had first considered the idea.

They went from 12 to 11 issues right away, when January and February, slow arts months, were combined. That’s how things remained until 2006.

“When I turned 60, we went to ten issues,” Seckel explains.  They combined July and August for her sake. “I personally needed a summer month.”

Art Timeshas had an online presence since the 1990’s.  Since 2009, visitors can link to each selection or scroll through a PDF of the whole issue. In that same year, while other publications were folding as a result of the economic downturn, Seckel remembers that Art Times did experience a reduction in ad sales, but there was never a thought that the publication would fold.  It did become bi-monthly – with some new material added monthly to the online version — but that has proven to be a more feasible schedule, anyway, for the two-person staff.  

In the middle of May, Seckel was preparing to leave for Berlin for a friend’s wedding.  She already knew what would happen once she got wind of the art scene there.

“I’m always plugged in to, ‘How could this be for Art Times?’” she said. “Everything is an opportunity.”

Looking back on the Art Times experience, Seckel said, “The fact that we’re still here nearly 28 years later is beyond the beyond.  At art shows or performances, people say to me, ‘I’m here because I saw it in Art Times.’  I’ve made a difference in the world.  How many people can say that?”

Marji Yablon, a writer and voice-over performer, can be reached at marjipearl@juno.com