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May 23, 2022

New arts council CEO Best says diversifying industry top priority

HBJ PHOTO | ROBERT STORACE Greater Hartford Arts Council CEO the Rev. Shelley Best in her 100 Pearl St. office in downtown Hartford.

Newly-minted Greater Hartford Arts Council CEO the Rev. Shelley Best said she believes the arts industry must be transformed to better represent the region’s rich diversity.

That would attract new artists, tap into a new customer base and let those who might have been looking in from the outside feel they too can be part of Greater Hartford’s thriving arts scene.

Best, who has been active in the diversity, equity and inclusion arena for decades, is the former executive director of the Conference of Churches, a Hartford-based consortium of faith-based organizations. She was also the founder of the 224 EcoSpace, a Hartford-based arts, health and wellness center that provides various services, including coworking space.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Hartford Business Journal at her 100 Pearl St. office in downtown Hartford, the 59-year-old Torrington native said things need to change in the arts industry, and she wants to be the catalyst.

“The growing edge for arts organizations is definitely in the area of diversity and inclusion,” said Best, who as CEO is leading an arts council that provides financial and organizational aid to about 150 arts organizations in 34 Greater Hartford municipalities. “Years ago, people talked a lot about new audiences for the arts, but when we look at who is sitting in the chairs in many of these venues, it’s an older demographic. It’s the older, gray-haired white people that come into the theater. That’s lovely and they have been the people who have stuck it out. But, if we look at the future of this region and the arts, we’ve got to get some new audiences, meaning they have to be under the age of 40.”

Efforts to diversify the arts industry will take on greater importance as theaters, museums and other organizations work to bring back crowds, donors and subscribers coming out of the pandemic, which had a devastating effect on the sector.

Federal emergency funds and donors kept the arts industry afloat over the last few years, but theater executives recently told the Hartford Business Journal their recovery will take at least two to three years.

And the arts industry has a major economic impact on the region and state.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture sector contributed $9.7 billion to Connecticut’s economy in 2019, representing 3.4% of the state’s GDP and 56,865 jobs, according to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.

Those were pre-pandemic numbers. Between March 2020 and February 2021, 506 Connecticut arts organizations surveyed by the Americans for the Arts reported $49 million in combined financial losses, with 12% of institutions not confident of their survival.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Best, the daughter of a concert pianist, said she’s always had an interest in the arts but became “fascinated” with the Hartford arts scene and what it could become while attending a Hartford Foundation for Public Giving advisory committee — called “Artists of Color Unite” — that aims to create a long-term support structure for minority artists.

Best’s organization, 224 EcoSpace, received a $200,000 grant in 2020 from the committee and foundation to establish “Artists of Color Accelerate,” a program that initially helped 10 minority artists with workshops, coaching and training in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Best said those fellows were placed as consultants at 10 Greater Hartford arts organizations.

“These artists are doing amazing work,” Best said. “This accelerate program grew their visibility.”

Best said she realized she could make changes on a larger-scale by running the arts council, so she applied for the open CEO job and got it.

She officially started in her new role April 18, succeeding Cathy Malloy, wife of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was the last permanent Greater Hartford Arts Council CEO.

Malloy left the post at the end of 2020. Kate McOmber, who now holds the title of chief operating officer, served as interim CEO.

Best said the 50-year-old arts council has been perceived by certain segments of the population as an organization of exclusivity.

“The relationship between the arts council and the public has been lacking [in the past],” she said. “That’s the perception from some people in the community. People in the community have not felt as welcome to approach the arts council. Now, we are really committed to more of the small and midsize [arts entities]. We want to connect more with actual artists.”

Best said she will be leading a summer listening tour throughout the region as a first step to seek out more diverse artists.

“We want to hear what the needs are. We really need to help them move forward,” she said.

Best, whose family was the first of color to move to Torrington when she was growing up, said diversity and inclusion within the arts “is a cornerstone for all of us.”

She said it’s past time “for Black and indigenous people of color to share their stories through art. I’d also like to see more productions that include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and differently able-bodied people. When people have a chance to express their story, … change has a way of happening in a different way than just advocacy and policy.”

Best said her overall vision for the arts council is to “work together to foster relationships; bring people together; and increase the vitality for the arts in this region. We have to collaborate with sponsors, politicians and others, as these are times of limited resources.”

Raising money

Fundraising is a vital part of Best’s job and it’s one reason she was picked from a pool of dozens of applicants, according to Brian Refici, president of the arts council’s board of directors since January.

“Fundraising is a prime objective,” said Refici, who is also a vice president at MarshBerry, a national insurance brokerage and financial services firm. “She has that experience. Look at 224 EcoSpace and how she got that up and running. It was pretty impressive. She also benefits from being from the area. We did not have to move someone in from outside the state; her local knowledge was beneficial. And, she has a love for the arts.”

The arts council has eight full-time employees and a part-timer with an approximately $3 million budget. Best said “increasing revenue and impacting the region” was a top priority.

The arts council doesn’t operate with an endowment and gets its funding from corporate sponsors, primarily property and casualty insurer Travelers Cos., Hartford’s largest employer.

Best said the council also gets funding from the state and city of Hartford. The new CEO said she looks forward to personally reaching out to sponsors and donors to continue to build on those vital relationships.

Best said the organization will continue to dole out money to arts entities when it can, depending on need. In addition to supporting more diversity in programming, Best said the arts council would also be open to supporting “art in small places.” “We can, for example, be a community that has more pop-up art and arts at the grassroots level,” she said.

Cynthia Rider, managing director of the Hartford Stage, said she would like Best to “keep the issues of arts and culture in the forefront.”

“Arts and culture organizations of all sizes need stable sources of funding and philanthropy, which is more important than ever,” Rider said. “I hope the council will continue to grow that part of their work. They speak on behalf of not just one genre, but arts and culture in its broadest sense.”

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