Linda Verni Williams

Centered Giving: Linda Verni Williams

When Linda Verni Williams first opened the Oneida Lakes Arts & Heritage Center (“the center”) in October 2021, she wasn’t sure anyone would show up. She had long dreamt of creating a central gathering place for artists and people of all ages to learn, share and grow together, and nothing of the sort existed in Sylvan Beach. The center sits in the middle of Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego and Madison counties. Linda was well aware of the challenges posed by trying to start and sustain a year-round community arts center in a mostly seasonal resort town, but she chose the location intentionally, hoping to attract people from all over Central New York and beyond.

“I’ve done all kinds of things, not knowing that I couldn’t,” said Linda. “And you can do a lot with a little. I thought, ‘Glimmerglass started in a barn and grew. Maybe we can grow here.’”

In just two short years, the center has already come a long way. Linda, with the help of her children, grandchildren, board members, former students and community volunteers, has transformed the former restaurant into an art gallery, rehearsal space, dance floor, performance area and classroom. Each month brings a new schedule of events and activities, including a sunset concert series, choral singing, open mic nights, paint and sips, sound baths, piano lessons, puppet shows, ballroom dancing and more.

“The evolution of this whole place has been organic,” said Linda. “I just brought in two pianos and opened the doors. The community has responded in exciting and unforeseen ways.”

Linda’s vision of creating a space dedicated to growth in the arts continues to expand and evolve through ongoing community conversations and collaborations. One such example is the Sylvan Beach Historical Exhibit, a growing gallery of photos and artifacts chronicling the history of the area generously donated by one of the center’s patrons who decided that her collection would do more good in the community than in her home. These artifacts are now on display alongside artwork from the Paul Parker Utica Trust, a collection of paintings and sketches that has been restored to public access at the center after years of archival storage following a water disaster. These paintings, the rental proceeds of which are intended to benefit underrepresented regional artists, depict scenes of pre-urban renewal Utica, including the area where Linda’s father’s restaurant Verni’s was located.

In more ways than one, the center is a culmination of Linda’s history and passions. From growing up and teaching music in Utica, to joining the school board and leading a community chorus in Madison County, to involvement with ballroom dance, St. David’s Celebration of the Arts, Symphoria, Sounds of Music Association and Oasis in Syracuse, the center is at the heart of everywhere she’s lived and everything she’s done.

“Teaching and giving back have been my key. God gave me a gift of music that I needed to share,” said Linda. “The outside world hurts our soul. Music and art are soul therapy.”

Linda will never forget the first time she touched a piano as a seven-year-old Catholic school student. She was mesmerized and determined to take lessons even though her family didn’t have a piano at home. After two years of persistent begging, she was given permission to practice on the pianos at the convent, which she did dutifully before and after school every week. Her father, no matter how busy he was with his restaurant, would habitually visit the convent and listen to Linda play.

Years later, while teaching in Utica City School District, Linda started Music in the City, a music education program for youth from underresourced neighborhoods. Drawing from her own experience, Linda borrowed instruments for the children to play and stepped into her father’s former role, listening to the budding musicians as they practiced. When grant funding for the program was cut after four years, Linda was forced to close the doors.

The center represents a new chapter and opportunity for Linda to bring all her past experiences to bear. She has exciting plans for the future too, including collaborations that will highlight the area’s Indigenous history and heritage, community cooking classes and one day maybe even a stage overlooking the lake that serves as the summer home for an orchestra or opera. While her vision for the center is ever-expanding, her objectives have always been clear: “Welcome, learn, grow, and share.”

Ultimately, her highest hope is that her dream will live on after her. In an effort to sustain her vision, Linda made arrangements to establish a legacy fund using proceeds from a trust that will transfer to the Community Foundation upon her death. After Linda passes away, the Linda Verni Williams Fund will provide annual support to Linda’s chosen charities, including the Oneida Lake Arts & Heritage Center.

“I want this to go beyond me.” said Linda. “I want this to keep going and growing. Finding funding for the arts is a struggle. That’s why I chose to partner with the Community Foundation – to endow a continuing legacy for the arts in Central New York.”

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