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Place-Making Idea Leaves Arts In A Bind


May 13, 2013

Connecticut's decision last year to award arts grants based on an organization's economic impact left many agencies with less or no state funding they traditionally received.

"This year, for the first time, we will be lucky to break even," said Barbara Smith-Soroca, president and chief executive of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra that had a 20 percent reduction in state funding to $14,211.

The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development changed its funding criteria starting July 1 to emphasize applicants' place-making, their ability to draw people and funding into their town. DECD also decided to hand out fewer but larger grants.

When the department made the decision, officials knew arts organizations would have a rough transition, but DECD wanted to fund agencies that helped grow the state's economy, particularly with tourism, said Kip Bergstrom, DECD deputy commissioner.

"It is disruptive," Bergstrom said. "We really want to think how do you bring art and historic preservation together in how they help tourism."

The place-making grants also opened up the process to more than non-profit organizations, including individual artists, businesses, and municipalities. The result was a more competitive process for what turned out to be slightly less money, $2.6 million.

"Some people that for many years received operational support were not funded," said Ryan Odinak, executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County. "It sort of shook up the way funding went for the arts."

The program received twice as many applications as funding, Bergstrom said.

The Northwest Connecticut Arts Council had its members lose out on all or some of their funding, said executive director Amy Wynn. Some didn't even apply, since the new application process changed from previous years.

The state funding under the old criteria gave money toward operating expenses, which private donors are less likely to support because programs are more glamorous, Wynn said.

"It hurt deeply in Northwest Connecticut, perhaps more than in urban areas," Wynn said. "If your government funding is cut, you can't say, 'Let's go to so and so company to make up the difference.' We have fewer options."

TheaterWorks in Hartford saw a 5 percent increase in its DECD funding to $26,240. The amount was encouraging, but the off-Broadway style theater doesn't plan on adding any programming beyond its six annual productions.

"We felt lucky because other organizations were not able to get any funding," said Freddie McInerney, spokeswoman for TheaterWorks. "The process itself was really kind of tough, but as place-making is defined, it basically was an easy fit."

Stamford Symphony, despite its 20 percent decrease in DECD funding, won't have to cut any of its programming, although the orchestra will ask for more private donations. If funds continue to decrease, then programs such as its 12 concerts, recital series, and concerts for children will face cuts, said Smith-Soroca said.

"I hope the state is able to balance its budget and fund its arts," Smith-Soroca said. "It is really one of great things about living in this wonderful, wonderful state."

Despite his organization receiving less funding, Stephen Hard, the executive director of the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance, said centering arts on place-making and economic development denotes a more modern philosophy and better investment of state dollars.

"That is what we have been about for the past 16 years," said Hard, whose organization received $11,849, down 5 percent from the previous year. "It will only get bigger in the future."

The new focus on economic development is part of Connecticut's new "Still Revolutionary" branding campaign, trying to draw visitors into the state's many unique attractions.

"We have a whole bunch of niche products, and we need to find the niche audience that appreciates that," Bergstrom said.

An inspiration for the new arts funding focus was Project Storefronts in New Haven, which provides 90-day rent-free space for artists in the city's empty storefronts. The program not only helps artists create viable businesses but boosts economic activity in blighted areas.

"We are focusing on town and place," Bergstrom said. "Our tourism product is a town product. The experience of living and visiting Connecticut is one of visiting towns."

That campaign included awarding extra funding and promotion to the state's favorite programs and attractions. In 2012, DECD filmed a special video for the Mark Twain House and promoted it on the state tourism Web site, because it was voted Connecticut's favorite attraction by residents and visitors.

This year, DECD is holding a favorite town voting contest. The voting ends May 15, and the leaders so far are Niantic, Mystic, Putnam, Old Saybrook, and Wethersfield. The winner, announced May 21, will receive a special two-minute video, featuring the voters' favorite attraction in that town.

Among the leaders, none of the favorite attractions are related to the arts.

Because of the disruptions to arts funding in this year's process, DECD is examining how the program was administered, making some tweaks, although no changes to the overall philosophy. Any changes have not been made public yet.

Despite the difficulties, Bergstrom said the state arts funding needed to refocus. Just because programs always received funding in the past didn't mean they should receive future money.

"There is a certain degree of institutional inertia that there had been in the past," Bergstrom said. "This is a change."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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