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January 9, 2012

State alters arts funding, links business impact

PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES Kip Bergstrom, DECD deputy commissioner, wants to provide more funding to arts programs in Conneccticut that attract new business and revitalize communities.

Private cultural and arts programs in Connecticut must play a greater role in revitalizing communities and attracting new businesses to receive state funding under a pilot program.

On July 1, the Connecticut Office of the Arts will consolidate four of its local arts funding programs into one initiative; double total funding to $3.1 million; hand out fewer but larger grants; and focus on recipients’ place-making.

“Instead of the money going out with no strings attached, we are placing the goal of creating a more vibrant community,” said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commission of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, which runs the Office of the Arts. “We want to put our money behind folks that are doing this well.”

If this pilot program is successful in its first year, Bergstrom hopes to convince the Connecticut General Assembly in 2013 to increase total funding by several multiples. The money will come once legislators believe they are no longer funding just arts but greater economic stimulation, Bergstrom said.

“Art makes great places. Great places attract great talent. Great talent creates great jobs,” Bergstrom said. “If we can prove this connection, we can significantly increase annual arts funding.”

Bergstrom’s plan consolidates the Arts Access, Artists Fellowships, Art Project Support and the Local Arts Agency Program into one overall program. Those programs have been funded at $1.6 million; the Office of the Arts will increase total funding to $3.1 million.

Larger grants will be handed out to arts organizations of all sizes that use their cultural assets to grow business and community, Bergstrom said, pointing to Project Storefronts in New Haven and the Garde Arts Center in New London.

Project Storefronts in New Haven takes blocks of empty storefronts in the city and negotiates with landlords to provide space to art-related businesses rent-free for 90 days. The goal is to fill up the space with paying tenants who are either the arts businesses moving beyond the start-up phase or outside businesses who are attracted by the new cultural activity in the area.

The program launched in 2009 and received a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to continue. Project Storefronts has revitalized its two initial sections of New Haven — on Orange Street and Crosby Street — and is working on two other locations on Crown Street and Chapel Street.

“We thought, ‘What can we do to activate artists as businesspeople?’” said Margaret Bodell, project consultant for Project Storefronts. “We give a lot of counseling to these small business folks to help them succeed.”

Higganum-based arts startup City Bench moved into the 100 Crown St. location in New Haven in July and will keep the space for another three to six months. The company takes the trees cut down by the City of New Haven each year, mills down the wood and fabricates furniture.

“It is great for us as a new business to have a presence in the city,” said Zeb Esselstyn, who owns City Bench with his brother. “Without Project Storefronts, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

City Bench’s goal is to one day have one New Haven location for all its milling, drying, fabricating and showing of the future, Esselstyn said.

The Garde Arts Center non-profit was founded in 1985 in New London with two goals: to prevent the demolition and renovate the 1,472-seat, 86-year-old community theater and adjacent office building; and become a catalyst for a cultural and economic revitalization of the downtown.

“We see ourselves on a business and urban mission to connect the community to each other,” said Steve Sigel, Garde executive director.

The non-profit has raised significant state and private support to meet these goals. Through buying downtown real estate and providing a cultural destination in the city, the goal is to make New London welcoming and inviting to businesses and visitors.

“We’ve had a lot of success in winning support from the state,” Sigel said. “We are a great pilot city to try things to see if they can work on a larger scale.”

Before the Office of the Arts launches its new initiative on July 1, the agency plans to get the necessary structure in place so the program will yield early successes to showcase to legislators, Bergstrom said.

“We are really going to work with the grassroots to develop it from the ground up,” Bergstrom said. “I am hopeful we can make the case for an increase in funding.”

Kip Bergstrom, DECD deputy commissioner, will alter arts funding.


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