Local arts leaders to develop cultural coalition

A group is forming to help the region's cultural organizations by advocating for them.

The Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition is the outgrowth of a survey and interviews conducted about the area's arts, history, heritage and humanities.

Separate surveys funded by state grants were completed last year in the New London and Norwich areas, but the two groups have since decided to combine.

About 40 leaders of regional cultural facilities - from entities such as the Garde Arts Center, the Florence Griswold Museum, Mystic Aquarium and Connecticut College - worked on these cultural assessments with consultants Craig Dreeszen and Ellen Silbermann.

The aim was to learn what the region's strengths and needs are.

Among the results: The cultural and creative sectors contribute a great deal to the region - economically as well as to its overall well-being.

What is needed, though, is advocacy for those groups and individual artists.

Artists said they could use help with marketing, increased earnings, and peer networking. Cultural organizations likewise pointed to marketing and networking, but leading their list of wants was funding for operations and programming.

The impetus for this assessment and coalition comes from the state. John Cusano, who is community development coordinator for the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, had been talking to southeastern Connecticut groups about creating a regional arts alliance. Cusano had been encouraging that idea around the state, and this area was one of the last remaining without such an alliance.

The details of what this region's coalition will do are to be determined. As of now, a transition team is in place to, among other things, give the organization its legal structure before a board of directors takes over, probably in June or July.

The transition team is led by co-chairs Fritz Jellinghaus, vice president of development at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, and Robert Mills, executive director of the Norwich Community Development Corporation.

Jellinghaus says, "The cultural assessment concluded there was a real strong need for some kind of cultural coalition in New London County. ... The mission of the organization is emerging but with a pretty clear mandate that it be a very powerful advocate on behalf of regional indentity and economic development through the promotion and sustenance of arts and cultural and heritage organizations."

In discussing the financial aspect, Lori Robishaw, the consultant to the transition team, pointed to a state study released a couple of months ago that said nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $653 million in economic impact annually.

Nearly 1,000 people responded to the New London and Norwich area online surveys. In addition, the consultants did nearly 70 interviews. The results break down various areas of interest from artists, organizations, and the public.

Among the assessment findings:

In southeastern Connecticut, the following percentages of respondents said they had attended these venues over the past year: 80 percent, libraries and bookstores; 75 percent, art museums or galleries; 66 percent, fairs or historic monuments; 50 percent, professional theater or concerts, or bought original art; 50 percent, science attraction, winery, independent film, classical music or community theater; 33 percent, jazz event; and 30 percent, casino entertainment or a dance.

In the Norwich assessment, the places and events most frequently listed: farmers markets, events at the harbor, fishing, fireworks, food festivals, church fairs, ethnic events, recreation departments and heritage events. Mentioned specifically were the Spirit of Broadway, the Slater Museum, Norwichtown events, historic cemeteries and Dodd Stadium.

As for what others coalitions like this have done: Jellinghaus had been president of the board of a new cultural alliance in Fairfield County, and he says their many efforts included advocating on behalf of culture in the county with the legislature; providing a forum for executive directors and trustees to meet periodically and talk about their issues and concerns; and developing an online county-wide cultural calendar.

Robishaw says that, for instance, when people come to visit the area's largest tourist attractions like Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport and the casinos, "our goal would be to see if we can't keep people in the area longer and let them know about our wonderful museums and performing arts venues and go see the Nautilus.

"So our value would also be in coordinated marketing efforts, looking at the arts and culture industry more broadly, partnering with tourism agencies."

That is something, she notes, that would be hard for an individual organization to do but that a coalition could handle.

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