In 1968, one thousand New York-area children arrived at the newly created Usdan Center to pursue their love of the arts. This extraordinary inaugural enrollment was testimony to the vision and dedication of the Center's founders.
They included artists, educators, and communal leaders. The Center was created in collaboration with Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, under the guidance of Federation’s dynamic and inspirational leader, Dr. Maurice B. Hexter. He embraced the concept of arts education in a camp setting, and enlisted the partnership of a great philanthropist, Samuel Lemberg. Mr. Lemberg provided the initial donations to establish the Center, and to honor his extraordinary generosity, the Board of Trustees named the new Center for his beloved daughter, Suzanne Usdan.
Arts educators created the educational and artistic plan for Usdan. The Center's founding Executive Director, Andrew McKinley, was a concert artist, a member of the Juilliard faculty, and a renowned opera singer. The Center’s Educational Coordinator and longtime Board President, Dr. Jerrold Ross, worked side by side with Mr. McKinley. Dr. Ross was then Chairman of the Department of Music Education at New York University. Together with Mrs. Usdan, Dr. Hexter, and Mr. Lemberg, a Board of Trustees was established, and Mr. McKinley assembled a superb faculty of prominent artists and teachers from the country’s leading conservatories and universities. A hallmark of Mr. McKinley’s leadership was his demand for the highest possible standards of performance and teaching, principles for which Usdan is known to this day. In 1983, following 16 years as Director of the Center, Andrew McKinley retired. The Board appointed Dale Lewis to become his successor, and Mr. Lewis has been Usdan’s Executive Director since that time.
Through the years, the Center's original curriculum of music, art, dance, and theater has expanded into additional fields of study in the arts. The program now includes major subject areas in writing, jazz studies, video arts, computer graphics, jazz and tap dance, chamber music, nature and ecology, organic gardening, fashion design, cartooning, animation, classical guitar, and chess. During the past ten years, Usdan has launched programs for beginners as well. Discovery is an arts exploration experience for children in Kindergarten and First Grade. In the Senior Division (students from 8th Grade through 12th Grade) music, art, or dance students are now eligible to apply for scholarships and student internships, and college or conservatory students are eligible for consideration as Work-Study Interns as well. Minor classes now include Life Drawing, Actor’s Skills, and Tennis.
In addition to its primary program for children, Usdan sponsors professional development events for arts educators, public events for lifelong learners, and community events for children and adults. Examples include alumni study days, lecture and concert workshops for adults, and a popular "day at camp" for adults known as Usdan University. Usdan’s professional staff provides mentoring programs for schools on Long Island in New York City, and the Center hosts training, rehearsal, and retreat events for arts and business professionals. Recent campus events included workshops and retreats for:
- -The Energeia Partnership
- -The Academy, A program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute
- -Long Island Arts Alliance's Scholar-Artist program
- -The Association of Fundraising Professionals
- -New York State School Music Association
- -Atlantic Wind Symphony
- -Long Island Envirothon
Usdan’s leadership includes its Board of Trustees, and a Leadership Council of Long Island community and business leaders. Since the Center’s inception, the Board has completed capital campaigns to build state-of-the-arts theaters and teaching studios on Usdan’s 100-acre woodland campus. These include the Lemberg Drama Center, Hexter Sculpture Museum, Goetz Art Gallery, Block Video Arts Center, Jerrold Ross Discovery Center, and Usdan's campus center, the 1,000-seat Andrew and Lily McKinley Amphitheater, completed in 1999.
Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts is a summer school designed to provide opportunities for children to develop artistic skills, regardless of their level of talent. The Center's students work with a professional faculty, and they participate in public performances and exhibits that reflect the high standards to which the Center aspires. At Usdan, students to have the freedom to explore, the structure to advance, and the inspiration to collaborate. The faculty's goal is for students to embrace the arts as a companion for life. Usdan's philosophy is reflected in the phrase: "Lose yourself for a summer, and find yourself for a lifetime."