Connecticut arts world looks to paint brighter future | Crain's Connecticut

Connecticut arts world looks to paint brighter future

  • The Westport Country Playhouse is engaging in strategic planning, aiming to create a fund of at least $750,000 to pay regular bills and make long-term investments. | Photo by Robert Benson courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse

    The Westport Country Playhouse is engaging in strategic planning, aiming to create a fund of at least $750,000 to pay regular bills and make long-term investments. | Photo by Robert Benson courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse

  • A public art display in Hartford. | Photo by Walter Williams/Crain's Connecticut

    A public art display in Hartford. | Photo by Walter Williams/Crain's Connecticut

  • A public art display in Hartford. | Photo by Walter Williams/Crain's Connecticut

    A public art display in Hartford. | Photo by Walter Williams/Crain's Connecticut

  • Michael Barker, who has two advanced degrees from Yale University, began work in September as managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse. | Photo courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse

    Michael Barker, who has two advanced degrees from Yale University, began work in September as managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse. | Photo courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse

Some of the best art may come from spontaneity, but Connecticut’s art world is using more planning to map its future.

Yale University graduate Michael Barker returned to Connecticut in September to become managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse. He recently hired a development director and is engaging in strategic planning, aiming to create a fund of at least $750,000 to pay regular bills and make long-term investments.

Reflecting on a successful run of “Camelot” that recently ended at the playhouse, Barker said he’s “hit the ground running” and wants to start securing the venue’s financial future sooner rather than later. Barker, who was managing director of the Marin Theatre Company in California prior to being hired in Westport, holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama as well as an MBA from the Yale School of Management.

“It was a nice thing to come into,” Barker said of the production. “But now I’m preparing to go to our funders. Planning is important. We’re having a lot of success and we want to keep that going.”

Planning is also going on statewide with the Connecticut Office of the Arts releasing its five-year plan last month. The 48-page plan is a tool for getting better results with fewer resources, according to Kristina Newman-Scott, who heads the office as director of culture within the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The office’s staff has gone from 16 employees to five with its fiscal year 2017 budget of $1.49 million, which is less than half of what it was 15 years ago.

“Every state office is going through this,” she said. “But there remains passion for the arts in our communities. Our plan points us to how to position the arts in the communities.”

The office enlisted several entities to provide input in creating the plan. One of them was the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, which hosted one of the forums known as a “charrette.” The charrette brought out many useful ideas, said Angela Whitford, executive director of the Norwalk-based alliance.

“We are pleased with the results and look forward to the impact this plan will have in creating meaningful opportunities for the cultural sector and its audiences in the upcoming years,” she said.

Elements of the plan, which covers 2017 to 2021, include arts and economic growth, and furthering arts education. The arts account for 36,000 jobs for Connecticut residents and generates $653 million in statewide economic activity, the arts office said in announcing the strategic plan. The office is on solid ground in pointing out the arts’ impact, said Fred Carstensen, a University of Connecticut professor who is director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.

“They contribute in a host of ways, from quality of life elements to providing important supplements to K-12 education to being strong tourism draws,” Carstensen said.

The center has done economic impact studies, including one on the New Britain Museum of American Art, but none recently, Carstensen said.

The Connecticut Office of Tourism, which is also part of the Department of Economic and Community Development, has been working with the arts office on promoting art as tourist attractions with contacts increasing since the release of the plan, state tourism director Randy Fiveash said.

Historic preservation assets is another area that the arts and tourism offices are working together to promote more effectively through the CTVisit.com website, which is managed by the tourism office, he said.

The schooling component of the plan contains great potential, said Amanda Falcone, spokeswoman for the Hartford-based Capitol Region Education Council, which includes the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts. The academy was named the country’s top arts school by the Arts Schools Network two years ago.

Economic gains will be among the harvest, she predicted.

“Art sparks creativity, initiates conversation, and fuels our economy and we are supportive of any plan to bolster the arts in our community,” Falcone said. “We believe in preparing students for college and for their future careers, and this includes jobs in the arts. As such, we believe in the importance of the arts and its role in fostering economic growth, and we look forward to seeing what will become of the state’s five-year plan.”

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s largest business group, does not have any directors of art institutions on its board but has strong ties to the arts world, public relations manager Meaghan MacDonald said. Hartford-based CBIA collaborates with the Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School in Hartford, which incorporates the arts into its science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. That collaboration, through which Rawson became Connecticut’s first “lighthouse” school, includes the Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford Performs, and the University of Hartford, she said.

Major plan initiatives will begin next year with the kickoff occurring on March 2 with Connecticut Arts Day at the State Capitol, Newman-Scott said. Three roundtable discussions are slated for March, April and May, and will involve representatives from the National Endowment for the Arts, she said. Topics of the roundtables are to include arts education as well as involvement by millennials and baby boomers in the arts.

The arts office is planning an anniversary celebration of the state’s Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools Program, which started in 1994 and has involved 47 schools and about 100,00 students. The program promotes teaching and learning through the arts in a “democratic” setting, according to the program’s website.

Newman-Scott said she is talking to corporations that she declined to name about involvement in the celebration and the program. Town hall meetings are being arranged with mayors, Newman-Scott said. These meetings will include discussions on how to use the arts to battle urban blight, she said.

A first annual report is scheduled to be published at the end of 2017.

“There’s no lack of work for us,” Newman-Scott said.

The results won’t be immediately identifiable in economic terms, according to the strategic plan, which Newman-Scott calls a “human-centered” document.

“Art delivers intangible stories, perspectives and emotions, and is too regularly improperly summarized using quantitative data,” the plan stated. “With new design principles in place, our office can begin to focus on the concerted action of collaboration and telling the story of the arts throughout Connecticut while growing future audiences and strengthening our organization from within.”

The office is on the right track with the strategic plan, said Barker, whose credentials include associate managing director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and managing director of the Yale Summer Cabaret, where he produced the first Carlotta Festival of New Plays.

“We’re very smart about the arts in Connecticut,” said Barker, an Arkansas native who describes his job at the playhouse as “like a homecoming.”

“I’ve gotten the impression that they (the office) get it,” he said. “They care about the things we care about. They think holistically.”

Connecticut arts patrons will recognize the efforts and contribute to them, Newman-Scott said.

“We’re a dynamic state,” she said. “Connecticut has long been open to new and innovative ways of getting things done. We will be empowering people. That will excite a lot of people.”

The excitement is already spreading to some quarters.

“We all have a stake in the success of this strategy,” said Fritz Jellinghaus, chairman of the Connecticut Arts Council, a government-created board supported by the arts office.

November 10, 2016 - 9:05am