17 Years of Daniel Schleifer: An Interview

To celebrate Dan’s tenure at NUA, we asked him to sit down with Jis Wilkins-Speaks, Multi-Disciplinary Artist, Classical High School Student class of ’25, STAB Member, and Frequent NUA Attendee. This interview was conducted in the study, and eventually in the rest of the studio, and was overseen by Development Associate, Rebecca Kerner, and transcribed by Communications Associate, Dean Sudarsky.

Jis: How did you hear about New Urban Arts?

Dan: I first heard about New Urban Arts in 2007 from my roommate at the time, Andrew Oesch, who was working here part-time in a role that we called Arts Mentoring Fellow. He told me “Hey, New Urban Arts is looking for people that can tutor in academic subjects but will be comfortable in a creative environment.” And he thought that I was somebody that fit that particular bill so he arranged for me to come by. I thought I was walking into a meeting with our program director at the time, Sarah Meyer, but in fact, it was a meeting with a bunch of students who were asking me all kinds of questions about why I wanted to show up in their space. So it was an ambush interview which we don’t do anymore.

Jis: Oh so you let them know it’s students that are interviewing them now?

Dan: Yeah we do… but nevertheless It seemed to work out pretty well and I got involved that fall, I started volunteering as what we called a “Studio Study Buddy” and been here in one way or another ever since.

Jis: Would you say you’ve outlived everyone you started working with?

Dan: Outlived? NO! Outlasted at New Urban Arts, yes.

Jis: You would say that you are the oldest person at New Urban Arts, right now, like right this second?

Dan: Uh… the longest running employee, yes, but not the person that has the longest history with the organization because that would have to be Tina or Dana who were students here before I ever walked in the door, or Ian who started volunteering before I did.

Jis: Do you have anybody you would like to thank?

Dan: Well I would like to start by thanking Rebecca Kerner and Jis Wilkins-Speaks. I mean yeah, it’s hard to even know where to start with that because everyone I’ve worked with here over the years has influenced me in some way, supported me in some way, made it possible for the organization to function, so I feel like if I start the list I will inadvertently leave someone out.

Jis: So you’re just going to give a big general thank you?
Dan: General Thank You reporting for duty [empty laughter]. I don’t know, I have to shout out, I mean Andrew Oesch got me involved, Sarah Meyer hired and shepherded me through as a volunteer for those first few years. Tamara Kaplan of course, NUA’s longest running employee ever, from 2001-2020.

Jis: That is very impressive!

Dan: It’s very impressive. Her imprint on this place is pretty indelible. I’d continue with all the founders, Marcus, Tyler, Malaika, Jullia. Obviously Jason Yoon who hired me in a development role for the first time and was a huge mentor for me. Emily Ustach who was my partner in crime… not crime, my partner in virtue? for basically my entire tenure. We got involved at almost exactly the same time—she was a couple months before
me as she had a temporary position the summer ahead of the year we both

Jis: So Emily’s who I have to kill to take the job then.

Rebecca: That position doesn’t exist anymore.

Jis: Dammit.

Dan: I’m holding you to this by the way, you have to take our jobs. But yeah, she worked elsewhere for a couple years but always remained involved and came back. And then she left a year ago. A year ago? A little over a year. Back to shout outs: Elia Gurna who followed Jason as executive director and believed in me that I could take on the Executive Director role after her. Honestly, also truly all the current staff for all the work to get us through the pandemic. It’s been huge, and really in that regard, especially the RAMs and Rebecca and Jeannie and Dana in particular.

Jis: …so everyone who ever stepped through the door here…

Dan: I mean yeah in a way, but getting everything through the pandemic, those people were really consistent throughout it. Okay I’m ready to move on. More questions.

Jis: Okay. Do you think NUA has changed? How has NUA changed?

Dan: That’s a really good question! There are some really big ways that it has changed but some ways that it still feels like the same place which is great. I think that the fundamental way in which it feels the same is that walking into the space you feel that sense of creative buzz that is maybe a little chaotic at times, but then you start to understand that chaos is  an ecosystem and that ecosystems are natural and not always apparently super orderly, but then you see how everything fits together, you know?

In terms of the changes we’ve obviously just grown so much. We’ve added a second program site, NUA Knights at Central, where we serve hundreds of students as well. We’ve invested in our team so much, we now have this part-time team of our Resident Artist Mentors as educators. That’s so huge and the fact that we provide healthcare to those folks is something that feels really important, both as a thing to do for people and also a statement about how we value the work that we do here. The demographics of the staff have changed considerably. For most of the history of this organization we had a predominantly white staff and now we have a predominantly POC staff.

Jis: That’s why we had to get rid of you. The times are a-changin’ Dan.

Dan: I feel like I put in a lot of time and effort and energy into changing the staff over a slow period, hopefully without too much upheaval or losing continuity, really thinking about how we’re investing in people and who we’re investing in, and then having made those investments… I guess I’ve done my best to use my own privilege responsibly and then get the organization to the point where I can walk away.

Jis: …get the organization to the point where you are the minority?

Dan: Uhhhh in this very specific context, yes hahah, I am.

Jis: Would you say that NUA has changed your life, positively or negatively?

Dan: Yes. Absolutely.

Rebecca: [whispering] He’s leaving because he’s so miserable.

Dan: Yeah of course it’s changed my life positively! I’ve spent almost my entire career here at this point. I’ve learned everything I know about how to do… anything honestly, here. But also just seeing firsthand the potential and power of creativity in the lives of young people [Jis sighs]. I’ve been given, through this opportunity, this position, the chance to do something incredible that I can feel really proud of. So yeah, of course, it’s been

Jis: Are you scared for what the future holds? Or pretty confident?

Dan: Hmmmmm. Of course I’m a little scared. A big change like this is always a little scary, but personally I feel super ready. To be really real, as much as I have loved the entire experience, trying to pull everything through the pandemic in relatively one piece has been remarkably exhausting. In January of 2020 I had hashed a plan with our Board of Directors that I would be leaving in summer of 2021, so it’s been about 3 years late, but I could not fathom compounding the crisis of the pandemic with an Executive Director transition. I really believe that was the right call, to stick around to get things through, but that said, it illustrates that I’ve been ready for this change for a while.

Jis: Okay, you’ve been sick of us for a while [Dan laughs]. But if you hadn’t not transitioned in 2021, you wouldn’t have met me, so…

Dan: Exactly.

Jis: That could have been the wrong choice for both of us, because then I’d be a bum, instead of the new Executive Director.

Dan: I don’t think you’d be a bum.

Jis: I’d be a bum sitting outside of NUA—you guys kicked me out the first time I came here. It was the first year after COVID.

Dan: We were trying to do “stable pods” and had a revolving enrollment system and we had to turn students away, yeah.

Jis: That’s why I didn’t come here until last year.

Dan: Yeah I’m sorry about that. It really underscores some of the particular challenges of the past couple years. Some of that feels so long ago and you think about it and it was only about two and a half years ago now that we were still really deep in the pandemic in this way that we were really thinking about making these fundamental changes to how the studio was open to young people. Every time we were turning these young people away in the back of our minds we were wondering if they would ever come back.

Jis: Well some of them did!

Dan: …and some of them did, yeah. But yeah, that took a toll—doing my best to keep up my morale during those moments as well as everyone else’s… it was hard. I’m really glad you came back.

Jis: Yayyy. Okay, so you’re old. Do you remember when Michelangelo died?

Dan: That’s very funny. That was a couple years before I was born.

Jis: Just kidding. Would you say… are you excited to leave? To finally get away from this place? Do you have any job opportunities lined up?

Dan: I don’t have any jobs lined up. I am going back to school actually. I am planning, as of this interview, to go get my Master’s…

Jis: …in Cosmetics?

Dan: …in Accounting.

Jis: Accounting?!

Dan: So one thing you might not know about me if you only know me through the context of New Urban Arts is that throughout high school, for a lot of my life, I was actually a big math and science guy [Jis groans]. And I still am to some extent, I crunch a lot of numbers in various ways for NUA. There is currently a national shortage of accountants, and it has hit the nonprofit sector particularly hard because nonprofit accounting is both more complex and less lucrative than other accounting subspecialties, so fewer people go into it. There have been various points over the past several years at New Urban Arts that we have been without an accountant, and Jeannie and I have had to teach ourselves nonprofit accounting, and I feel like I’ve learned it well and I’m going to make a career out of it.

Jis: That’s a lot of dedication.

Dan: Jis are you any good at math?

Jis: No. That’s my worst subject. In fact, I think that subject is the reason why my GPA is so low. The irony is that I can do math when it’s science math, like physics, but I can’t do it when it’s math math.

Dan: So Applied Math? That’s all accounting is, do you want to join me in the accounting field?

Jis: NO, Dan! NO!

Dan: It’s really cool!

Rebecca: Jis that way you really could come be our accountant.

Jis: I don’t wanna be your accountant!… Do you think that New Urban Arts will continue to be afloat without your influence?

Dan: Yes. Absolutely.

Jis: Even if you’re busy being an accountant, will you come back and visit? You know this question is legally binding, so we have to see you at least twice every year.

Dan: Yes definitely. At least twice, probably a lot more.

Rebecca: Dan gets to have a break from us too.

Dan: I’m actually really excited to see how things change after I’m gone, to see people taking new ownership. That said, one of the things about an ED transition is that whoever is my successor, I’m looking forward to introducing them to partners and making sure that donors and funders and partners and stuff, that those relationships that have helped us grow and succeed are maintained.

Jis: You want the new ED to feel about New Urban Arts and its partners how YOU feel about New Urban Arts and its partners? You want to pass on that love?

Dan: Yeah, exactly, that’s a great way of saying it.

Jis: So if you were to have one final meal, before, let’s say, you’re euthanized, what would it be?

Dan: That’s a really good question, a really hard one. Probably just a big bowl of pho, with all the fixins, yeah. What would you have?

Jis: I would have enough food to last me at least two days, so I could postpone the euthanasia of course. Do you have any thoughts for your going away party? A dress code?

Rebecca: Have you seen his outfits?

Dan: I would rather not have a big fanfare, but if that’s what people want to do, I try not to be the kind of person who makes things more awkward by being so weird about their birthday or whatever.

Rebecca: What’s the most memorable moment you have from working here, and what’s the most NUA moment you have? Those can be different moments.

Dan: I’m not sure, maybe they’re the same, but for some reason one that comes to mind recently is one time when I was still Development Director, there was this student who was learning how to cut hair, and she kept asking me, “Can I cut your hair? Can I cut your hair?” and I kept on telling her “Not today, but at some point,” because I always had something going on that day. I think she thought that I was trying to gently say no and not be real about it, but then there was one day when she was like, “Can I cut your hair? Can I cut your hair?” and I was like, “Actually, wait let me look at my schedule… yes!” and she said, “Wait are you serious?” and I was like, “Yeah let’s do it.” The thing about this memory that really sticks out in my mind is that she had some peers in the studio who didn’t… believe that she would be any good at cutting hair, and they were all like, “Don’t do it Dan!” or, “You don’t have go through with this!” and I was like, “No, I’m sure that she wouldn’t be offering if she didn’t know what she was doing,” and we went outside and I got a great haircut and it looked really good. I don’t know, there are so many moments, but it just epitomized the relationship building piece, the fact that we allow young people to try things and take risks, and we even take risks with them ourselves in order to model the trust that we have in young people here.

Rebecca: Was it just a buzzcut?

Dan: No it was just like my haircut that I usually have! She knew what she was doing. And also modeling for her peers who maybe didn’t have as much confidence in her, like, “No, I’m gonna trust in this student, and I hope you all know that if you had some wacky idea that you came to me with, I would also trust in you, her peers,” you know?

Jis: What are your plans for your next birthday?

Dan: I actually want to do something kind of big because my past couple birthdays it seems like there’s always been this big deadline looming for some grant and I haven’t gotten to celebrate properly. So this coming year, I’m gonna do something big, for my 43rd birthday.

Jis: You’re only 43? Genuine question.

Dan: Well I’m 42 now. But maybe I’ll go to New York City or something… “take in a show.” Or maybe if the Philadelphia 76ers are playing that night somewhere on the east coast, maybe I’ll go see them.

Jis: You’re a sports guy?

Dan: Just basketball. I think basketball is the greatest.

Jis: What do you do for your creative practice?

Dan: I’m a musician. I have played in a couple of bands over the years, but my real passion is Eastern European folk music.

Jis: Ohhhhh my godddddd.

Dan: What???

Jis: That’s just the most Dan answer ever. Let’s get out of this room and ask other people: How would you describe Dan in three words?

Ian Cozzens (Printmaking RAM): I would descibe Dan as Ethical, Committed, and Hilarious.

Sissy Rossó (Student Support Specialist): Dad. Cool dad. Cool creative dad.

Sherly Torres (Painting and Drawing RAM, MET Art Academy Instructor): Dominican, very musical, oh, and flexible, like he crouches on seats when he’s really into something [Dan: Editor’s note, I’m not actually Dominican, but I’m grateful that Sherly has dubbed me an honorary Dominican.]

Teresa Conchas (ALAS Program Coordinator): Silly-goofy that’s one word. Curious. And I don’t want to say dependable, even though he is dependable, I feel like steady. Dan is steady.

Dana Heng (Manager of Artist Mentors): Devoted, silly, and spicy.

Jeannie Castillo-LaPierre (Studio Director): I think he’s intellectual, I think he’s a mentor, and I think he’s fun!