Before taking the helm at the Islip Arts Council in 1976, Lillian Barbash’s last official position of leadership was as a Parent Teacher Association president at South Country Elementary in Bay Shore over a decade earlier.
But her work with the PTA perhaps served as a precursor of what she would bring to the Islip Arts Council — and to the people of Long Island at large.
As PTA president, Barbash helped share her love of music by arranging a student trip to the Metropolitan Opera House.
She would later become known as the person who brought the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the premier orchestras in the world, each year to Long Island for a performance at Heckscher State Park that was free to the public.
The concerts went on for 31 consecutive years.
With each performance, the Islip Arts Council made a bigger and bigger name for itself, and for Barbash.
The Brightwaters resident recalls she didn’t ask for much when she was approached to take over the fledgling council, which was created by Town Board resolution in 1974 to serve as an advisory body to the board.
“I remember when [former town attorney] Sid Mitchell asked me if I would do it, and I said, well, can I have a desk?” Barbash said recently.
And that was about all she got: an office upstairs at Brookwood Hall, a former Knapp and Thorne family estate operated by the town in East Islip.
“And a phone,” she laughed.
She made it work. Under Barbash’s leadership, the Islip Arts Council was soon incorporated as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit arts organization in 1976. The move made it possible for the Arts Council to apply for county, state, and federal grants.
It’s that 1976 incorporation that’s being marked Thursday night at the Islip Arts Council’s Then and Now 40th Anniversary Gala at Marconi Manor in Islip. (It was originally planned for Brookwood Hall.)
Barbash is being honored alongside the current executive director, Lynda Moran.
her love of music
From the philharmonic concerts to the high-quality, subscription-based Chamber Music Society performances held in the Sayville Middle School auditorium each year, Barbash is quick to admit her passion for music is what drove the Arts Council’s focus.
What also drove her — and thus, the Arts Council — was a desire to share classical music with people who might not have otherwise been exposed to it.
Although chasing personal passions, Barbash knew she must have been doing something right when she learned a divorcing couple ended up wrangling over who would get rights to their assigned seats at the chamber music concerts.
“That became a bone of contention, who got the two seats,” she said “That’s when I said, we finally arrived.”
She’s also brought master’s classes to the Arts Council, through which local students would get to experience a pop-up style lesson with top musicians.
holding true to tradition
Over the course of decades, the public’s taste in music began to change.
“The audience that would come to the concerts that I presented when I was the director, we’d sell out, but those people are gone,” Barbash said. “They’ve either died or moved to Florida; they just don’t exist anymore.”
Even though the popularity of classical music had waned, the philharmonic concerts still attract thousands each year to Heckscher State Park.
But the New York Philharmonic stopped coming after 2008, with the fallout of the U.S. economy.
The Long Island Philharmonic — of which Lillian Barbash and her late husband, Murray, were founders — took over, but that group shut down earlier this year.
Still, Moran was determined to keep the decades-old tradition at Heckscher alive.
‘This past year, in order to have the philharmonic concert in the park, I contacted David Stewart Wiley, the [former Long Island Philharmonic] conductor, and we got together 40 musicians, and we were able to have a concert,” Moran said proudly.
“I think it’s a tradition that the Long island community at large looks forward to, and even with the rain that occurred this year, we had quite a few thousand people out there,” she added. “We didn’t have the 20,000 that we had the year before, but we had enough; it was very well attended.”
expanding the scope
The Islip Arts Council that Barbash helped establish over the course of three decades has expanded tremendously in scope under Moran, who took the position in 2007.
Before taking over, Moran, an attorney, had served nearly 10 years as president of the board of Splashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization of artists that hand paint murals in healthcare facilities that’s since grown into an international organization.
As the executive director, Moran quickly began to incorporate more visual arts into the group’s activities, with a big focus on children.
Within a year she had started The Teeny Awards, which is a Tony Awards-style awards contest and ceremony for high school actors — a program that continues to grow each year
“We’ve been having a ball with it,” Moran said.
She also started the School of Cultural Arts, through which she has incorporated painting and almost all other styles of visual arts, theater and dance workshops, even yoga, reiki and meditation. The Arts Council runs Mommy and Me arts classes and soon, Moran hopes, will be scheduling classes for the developmentally disabled.
In 2011, the Arts Council was tasked with taking over management of the Islip Arts Museum —already housed in the same historic building — in return for larger, rent-free office space in the building’s ground floor, adjacent to the museum and its rotating exhibits.
Moran has also played a large role in the restoration projects that have been undertaken at Brookwood Hall, which last served as an orphanage before the town purchased the property in 1967 from developers for $385,000.
New York Times: Brookwood Hall’s History Revealed
The mansion’s grand ballroom was recently renovated, and the restoration of the porch and grand portico facing Knapps Lake is ongoing. This spring, the grounds recently saw its tree alley, or tree-lined walkway, restored using donated labor and materials.
See before-and-after photos of the walkway below.
Moran says the Arts Council’s biggest challenge moving forward will continue to be funding sources — as governmental help from the town and county has been ever-shrinking.
“But we’ve continued our traditions here, despite all the obstacles,” she said.
For Barbash, she reflects warmly on getting to meet and mingle and befriend some of the world’s most talented musicians.
But above all, she delighted in getting to introduce them to the rest of Long Island — even if that meant enticing them with Grucci fireworks shows after the concerts. (The fireworks tradition also remains under Moran’s leadership at the Arts Council.)
“The fact that I know some people have really been influenced by these performances, that is really gratifying” Barbash said. “A lot of people who saw the New York Philharmonic were very impacted by the experience.
“I remember seeing someone in the audience say, ‘How do they play together like that?’”
Top Photo: Lillian Barbash with Senator Charles Schumer at a New York Philharmonic concert in Heckscher State Park in 2004. (courtesy)