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December 5, 2022 2022 Innovators Issue

2022 Innovator: Rev. Dr. Shelley Best uses faith and art to help raise Hartford’s profile

PHOTOS | KEITH CLAYTOR Rev. Dr. Shelley Best leads the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

The walls of Rev. Dr. Shelley Best’s office at the Greater Hartford Arts Council are lined with her own artwork and prayers, which, in her estimation, amount to the same thing.

“When I paint, I pray,” says Best, pastor of the Redeemer’s A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion church in Plainville, and, since April 2022, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

“The Creator is creative,” she explains. “And so art is creativity that’s expressed and definitely very spiritual.”

Among the devotional paintings on her walls are selections from her series “What Is Black?” They feature Mondrian-inspired patterns of squares and rectangles in a variety of flesh tones from black to tan to off-white, reflecting the diversity of the human race. That diversity, she believes, has more power to unite than divide.

“Creativity offers a common ground for people who turn vision into reality, whether or not they agree religiously,” she says.

Best calls such individuals “soulpreneurs.” Helping them get the support they need in order to thrive and breathe life into the community, she says, is her primary job as CEO of the Arts Council, an organization that helps fund a wide variety of arts enterprises in Hartford and the Greater Hartford region.

They range from the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum to Sankofa Kuumba, an arts education program celebrating the culture of the African Diaspora, to the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz and Puerto Rican Day Parade.

“My role is to help people engage in the arts and connect with one another as a community through the arts, and that way we can bring back vitality to the city, which is still recovering from the pandemic,” she says with frank and optimistic determination.

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Best, 60, grew up in an artistic household in Norfolk. By the time she was in high school, her family moved to Torrington. School trips to Hartford to see productions at the Hartford Stage Co. during these years not only endeared the city to her but put to rest earlier ambitions of pursuing a career in cosmetology.

After majoring in persuasion communication and minoring in poetry at Central Connecticut State University she ultimately went on to earn degrees at Yale Divinity School (Master of Divinity, 2000) and Hartford Seminary (Doctor of Ministry, 2010), now The Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.

It was during her years at Hartford Seminary that she began to paint, expressing herself theologically on canvas.

By the time she graduated, her path to the pulpit merged with the focus of her doctorate: faith-based community development — the involvement of faith-based institutions in the economic revitalization of local communities — and its outgrowth, social enterprise.

“Social enterprise is a business that a nonprofit might have where the profit of the business helps to fund the nonprofit,” she explains.

New solutions to old problems

One of her first social enterprise projects, begun when she was still in graduate school, was the resuscitation of the Hartford-based Conference of Churches via the creation of the 224 Ecospace, an arts, health and wellness center in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood.

Founded in 1900, the Conference is one of the oldest ecumenical organizations in the country. Yet by the time Best was appointed CEO in 2001, the Conference’s business model — financial reliance on member churches — was no longer viable.

Seeking new solutions to an old problem, Best was inspired by the work of the Rev. Floyd Flake, former pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, New York.

An early proponent of faith-based community development, Flake helped transform the church’s once-blighted neighborhood into a thriving, self-sustaining community beginning in the 1980s and ‘90s by establishing a private school, credit union, health clinic, and affordable housing, through a combination of volunteerism, investors, and the support of city officials.

Acting on the advice of a fellow entrepreneurial minister who once told her, “If you want to change a city, buy it,” Best — armed with testimonial support from local residents and a half-million-dollar bond grant from the state — negotiated the purchase of the old Hartford Courant Arts Center.

Once home to the Hartford Ballet, Hartford Symphony and Greater Hartford Arts Council itself, the building sat vacant for several years by the time the Conference made an offer of $387,000. The bid was well below the $1.5 million asking price, but was nonetheless accepted.

That, to some degree, was the easy part.

“How do you rehab a 30,000-square-foot building without money? One room at a time, one bucket of paint at a time. We had volunteers renovate that building, painting, patching, repairing, room by room,” Best recalls.

The end result was a handsome, multiuse arts and cultural center with an art gallery; dance, theater and yoga studios; meeting rooms; and a library. These enterprises not only help fund the Conference of Churches, now headquartered at 224 and refocused more on community building and self reliance, but have been “significantly responsible for changing” what has historically been one of Hartford’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, says Jackie McKinney, chair of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association.

“Since 224 first got started it has grown and blossomed in tremendous ways, far more than I originally thought it would,” says McKinney, whose organization now meets in the facility once a month.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

With this momentum and her position as CEO of the Arts Council as platforms, Best is eager to spread the gospel, as it were, of social enterprise to other arts and other organizations throughout the city and Greater Hartford region, especially among more traditional venues.

“Let’s face it, in a place like Hartford, the arts have been very Eurocentric, and that doesn’t represent the people who live here. We want art to represent a community so that all people get to see and experience their stories in galleries, on stages, or through music,” Best says.

The recently created Arts Council consultant practice, Reenvision Arts, is one way to achieve this goal, she says. The initiative helps arts organizations gain new audiences — critical to survival — by pivoting from traditional themes to those focused on “DEIAJ,” which Best says stands for “diversity, equity, inclusion, access and justice.”

It’s a vision and an approach shared by many Hartford residents.

In a May 2020 city government survey, commissioned in anticipation of Hartford’s 400th anniversary in 2035, “arts and culture” and “diversity of its people” were overwhelmingly identified as the Capital City’s top two greatest strengths.

To its credit, the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the city’s most prominent repositories of Western art, has recently taken it upon itself to acknowledge this shift by hiring Afghan native Abdul Hamid Hemat to help diversify the museum’s art collection and display examples of Asian, African, pre-Columbian and Indigenous art currently in storage.

On a visit to the museum in September, Best was delighted to encounter a work by Kehinde Wiley, an African-American realistic portrait painter who frequently depicts and empowers Black people by making them the central figures of paintings rendered in the classical style of Old Masters.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is not surprised by the results of the survey, and, like Best, believes that investment in the arts is a clear pathway to the city’s recovery and revitalization in the wake of the pandemic.

“We feel it is important to put arts, artists, and creators in Hartford at the center of our work to restore the energy and vitality of this city after all we’ve been through,” says Bronin.

To this end, in June, the City of Hartford announced plans to spend $5.85 million — part of the city’s $112 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan — on arts and culture initiatives. Of that $5.85 million, Bronin says more than $1 million a year over the next three years will be committed to Hartford Creates, a program to fund visual and performing arts, in partnership with the Arts Council.

“I think the Council is a natural partner in this work to involve our community and to empower Hartford’s artists because that’s a mission that is a priority for Shelley Best,” Bronin says.

Raising self-esteem

Another priority for Best is raising Hartford’s profile and self-esteem when it comes to its role as a center of arts and culture, not only in the state, but in the region.

The Greater Hartford Arts Council staff.

“You’ve got to claim who you are,” she says. “For too long, Hartford has allowed itself to stay in the shadows between Boston and New York, but I believe it is New England’s premier creative destination.”

As evidence, she points to the city’s many artistic and cultural landmarks and institutions: the Wadsworth, America’s oldest public art museum; the Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest newspaper; the Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, among others.

The work of the Arts Council, she says, is to build upon these foundational legacies by focusing on three key pillars: “create, evolve, and belong.”

“ ‘Create’ is looking for ways to increase creativity in new ways. ‘Evolve’ is shifting some of the business focus of the arts to build new audiences, and ‘belong’ is supporting arts that are accessible to everyone,” says Best.

Ambitious goals, perhaps. But for someone to whom paintings can be prayers, it follows that the arts have the power to transform not just individuals but entire communities.

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