The Community School of Music and Arts lies in the heart of Ithaca in one of the oldest, most active performance spaces in Tompkins County, second only to the State Theater. Founded in 1960, CSMA’s mission is to diversify the art scene in Ithaca by providing an inclusive space for community members spanning all ages and backgrounds, and the school aims to continue that goal to this day.
Executive Director of the CSMA Robin Tropper ’85 moved around after graduating from Cornell, but eventually came back to Ithaca and has remained here ever since. Even though she feels like Ithaca has not changed drastically since she was a student, she is grateful to have a new perspective on the area as a person in an administrative position.
“As a student, I didn’t get off of campus that much. I would come downtown every now and then, but mostly hung out on campus and in Collegetown,” Tropper said. “It’s wonderful to experience Ithaca as a non-student. There’s so much to do — for example, being able to enjoy the very vibrant art scene that our community has.”
Tropper described CMSA’s location at 330 E State Street as a community hub, saying that the school caters towards Ithaca and the greater Tompkins County community.
According to Tropper, the school takes pride in their successful implementation of its vision of diversity and inclusion, ensuring that both their students and staff members have a wide range of backgrounds. Tropper thinks diverse perspectives and audiences help them achieve their goals of creating a sense of belonging for all.
“We are implementing efforts to recruit and hire diverse staff, which I’m proud that we’ve been very successful at doing. We’ve been filling positions with new people, and it’s been very important to make every effort to have diverse communities represented in our staff,” Tropper said. “As we hire new faculty, our hope is that the instructors bring increasingly diverse perspectives to our spaces here.”
CSMA’s audiences also come with more diverse demographics. Ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens, the school was tasked with adapting in order to be able to accommodate all members.
“[CMSA is] a very different space we have [from other arts communities],” Tropper said. “This is much more community-oriented and geared for people to experience the arts, whether they’re a beginner artist or somebody who’s just had a lot of experience and wants to continue learning.”
Tropper explained that the school’s commitment to adapting to a community of different skill levels can be seen through their large stretch of programs. Their programs are divided into three categories: dance and theatre, music and visual arts. Within these, CSMA offers specialized private lessons, group session classes and summer camps.
“We set ourselves apart from many other community arts organizations because we offer this range of programs that covers multiple art forms. Not just theater, not just music, not just dance” Tropper said.
Aside from these lessons and classes, CSMA also holds a variety of events every month, including a poetry open mic on the second Friday of every month. Groups who have performed at the open mic include the Ithaca Area Poets, a small, tight-knit group that has frequented the Ithaca area for the past twenty-five years.
In these open mic sessions, poets are free to share their own poems as well as those written by their close friends. And although participation is encouraged, anyone is free to simply sit in and listen to the poets speak their word.
While the poetry session was held in the building’s lobby, other events — such as yoga workshops and concerts — are held in CSMA’s famous Martha Hamblin Hall.
Lea Davis, CSMA’s production manager, explained the history of the hall and said that big names such as Tom Whites, Billy Joel and Billie Holiday had performed there in the past. Although Davis mentioned the many benefits of working for a non-profit community arts school, they claimed that Martha Hamblin Hall is what truly makes CSMA unique.
“There’s so little like this. In terms of places that are still being used, it’s probably the second oldest downtown,” Davis said. “It’s got a lot of history.”
Seating up to 250 guests, the hall was originally built by Arthur Norman Gibb in 1890 as the Fraternal Order of Eagles’ lodge. Although, as Davis explained, the building has been used for offices for the city, a bowling alley, a dance class, a paper store, a music club and even a police shooting range over the years, this space has managed to preserve a significant amount of its distinctive historical design.
CSMA’s love for the arts reinvigorated the spirit of a community-based music and arts school that is available to all. Davis shared that the school hopes to continue its growth and plans to communicate its services to a demographic that they have not been able to fully reach — Ithaca’s college students.
“I definitely think there’s kind of a disconnect between the community and the universities,” Davis said. “I want to work towards having more open mics, more open stages, more things like this where people can just walk in.”
Allan Rikshpun ’25 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].
Sophia Torres Lugo ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].