ITHACA, N.Y. — Sam Buggeln’s eyes light up as we walks through the steel shell of the partially finished building. As Artistic Director of the Cherry Arts, he beams with excitement when he describes the new Cherry Artspace under construction at 102 Cherry Street on Ithaca’s industrial waterfront. “As soon as the erector team shows up, it’s like magic.”

The Cherry Arts is a collaborative of performing arts professionals, led by Buggeln and Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Herzog. In most communities of Ithaca’s size, actors will come to town, rehearse and perform over two to three weeks, and then head back to the bigger burgs. Buggeln says that Ithaca’s high concentration of high-quality artists and strong support for the performing arts allow organizations such as the Cherry Arts to form homegrown organizations and showcase local talents, whether they be actors, playwrights, dancers or poets.

“What’s really exciting about {The Cherry} is that it gives the artists here an artistic home, a place for them to develop, create, produce their own work potentially, to make mistakes…it doesn’t necessarily have to be a commercial project that rehearses over a couple weeks and is produced immediately, it’s a place where they can develop works over long periods of time, and collaborate with other artists in town, ” said Herzog.

The Cherry specializes in three forms of plays. The first is foreign plays, many of which have never been translated and performed in the U.S. The second is experimental plays, which aren’t usually the self-indulgent off-the-wall shows one might imagine, but they engage with audiences or are structured different from the typical Broadway show. The last are local plays – plays about Ithacans, by Ithacans.

Community members not only write plays with local themes, they also help shape other parts of the Cherry’s performances. Buggeln shared some recent examples. “Anna Coogan, a local singer/songwriter, always touring with fantastic people and a real icon of local music circles, she wrote songs for us. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a prominent, powerful poet who teaches poetry at Cornell, wrote lyrics for our new production of The Snow Queen. We really hope to be reaching across these genre boundaries. We want the Artspace to be a great home for others, like dance companies and visual artists.”

However, the new Artspace isn’t just for the members of the Cherry Arts. Buggeln explained that the goal is to make it a multidisciplinary space, catering to a variety of local artists from different genres. “From the beginning, we’re talking with groups like Circus Culture, Whiskey Tango Sideshow, Ithaca Underground, we’re hoping to collaborate with Civic Ensemble, other organizations to help them to present their work in a way that will allow them to put their resources into work,” said Buggeln. “I hope {the Artspace} helps to expand and cross-pollinate audiences so that a music audience comes and hears a band, and then they see in the lobby posters for the next play, or the next circus show, or the next dance show, or visual art installation, and become interested, both the audiences and artists.”

As for the new Cherry Artspace building, one can attribute that to Ithaca’s lack of rundown warehouses. “[T]here’s a long history of artspaces happening in industrial areas, and our first thought was to buy some ramshackle warehouse and fix it up, but that warehouse is not in Ithaca,” Buggeln laughs. “It was either too big, or not for sale. Also, the costs of converting a ramshackle warehouse into a space that has sprinklers and ADA bathrooms is ginormous. So then we saw this little piece of land, and the tremendous beauty of the water, and a pre-fab shell building is not that much more expensive than buying and rehabbing an old warehouse, so that’s where we are now.”

The Cherry Street location, apart from being a useful way to remember the artist group’s moniker, is an area of rapid change. As Ithaca’s urban core has been revitalized over the past decade or so, the West End and the Waterfront have seen increasing interests and investment – examples include Purity Ice Cream, HOLT Architects, The former Lehigh Valley House and Ports of New York.

Also included in that was the Maguire Family of Dealerships and their plans for Carpenter Business Park. That proposal encouraged the city’s passage of a special zoning (TMPUD) that created an extra layer of review for waterfront projects. The first project to face the Common Council as a result of its passage, was the Cherry Artspace.  The plan is a modest one-story, 1,900 SF space designed by local architect Claudia Brenner, and is intended to blend in with the industrial architecture that comprises the Cherry Street corridor. To do this, the building is basically the big brother to the former Renovus Energy building next door – similar colors, similar materials, and a shed roof. After months of review, the Common Council granted their approval last May with an 8-2 vote.

Buggeln noted that it was a lot of time and paperwork, but for the location, it was worth it. “It’s a beautiful spot, we’re hoping that we will be able to subsidize the work of the art with dinner parties and events and stuff like that, it’ll just be a big sort of beautiful, flexible space.” The seats aren’t fixed to the floor, so the building can accommodate 80 sitting play patrons, or 200 standing concert-goers. The building will have large doors that open out onto the inlet, should visitors want to take advantage of Ithaca’s fleeting but cherished warm days.

“What’s funny is that this is by some measures the wrong side of the tracks, an industrial neighborhood…in most cities, that means getting into your car. Here, we’re fifteen minutes’ walk from downtown,” Buggeln added.

Artistic Director Sam Buggeln (L), and Associate Director Jennifer Herzog (R)
The Cherry Arts Artistic Director Sam Buggeln (L), and Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Herzog (R)

When asked what makes the Cherry Arts stand out in a city with a broad spectrum of performing arts groups, Buggeln looked outside and smiled. “I think the magic behind the Cherry is the professional theater practitioners that live in town, and the creativity that lives within all of them and all of us…giving these artists a home to try out new things, and a place to bring their ideas to life, that’s not necessarily been done in Ithaca as of yet. We have wonderful professional theater companies, wonderful regional companies that already exist in Ithaca, but their mission is not necessarily to open the floor and create a space for artists to develop new things. So I think that’s part of what sets us apart.”

“I think the projects that have emerged have grabbed people’s imaginations, and we’ve just been really amazed and grateful in how well we’ve done in terms of artists response and audience response from the get-go. We set out a headphone walking play, we had no idea how to do that, that’s the place we’re beginning. So when it becomes really successful, it’s extra exciting.”

The Cherry Artspace is set to have a soft opening in late April. The first event in the new venue will be a pair of short plays written by Argentine playwright Santiago Loza, in what will be his United States premiere. For those interested, more information can be found on the Cherry’s webpage here.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at