Norwich discusses arts scene improvements

Norwich — Local arts and history advocates hope to develop a unified theme and promotion plan for the multitude of city events and attractions that could serve as a model for other cities and towns in the region. 

About 40 representatives from local arts, historical and cultural organizations and business supporters gathered Wednesday at the Wauregan Ballroom to discuss how to improve the arts scene in the city and better promote events and arts groups. 

Mayor Deberey Hinchey called the meeting of the Norwich Arts and Events Committee, a group she first brought together following her November 2013 election, after the committee received approval for a $2,500 R.S. Gernon Trust grant to enhance and support the arts in Norwich. Hinchey said she is pleased at how the effort has grown from a few people sitting around a conference table at City Hall to the 40 people who participated in the Wauregan Ballroom discussion. 

Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, which received the grant on behalf of the Norwich arts promotion effort, and Norwich Community Development Corp. Vice President Jason Vincent led the discussion, asking participants to name the city’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. 

The list of weaknesses grew fast with familiar themes — a perception that downtown is not safe and there’s no parking, lack of funding, the need for more corporate sponsors and better cooperation among arts groups. 

Peter Leibert, a longtime member of the Norwich Arts Center Board of Directors, said the center thrived when it could afford a paid director to coordinate activities, promotions and grants. When government funding dried up, the position was lost. The city, too, cut funding to its former tourism office, losing staff and coordination. Most arts groups in the city now are run entirely by volunteers. 

“Is it possible to do what all you want to do on a volunteer basis?” Bury asked. 

She received a nearly unanimous voiced vote of “no,” with one or two “yes” calls sprinkled in. Arts groups in the city would like to hire one director who could coordinate the various events and help organizations collaborate on combined activities. 

Bury announced one major opportunity open to the Norwich arts community. Norwich is the only city to receive a trust grant, and she hopes to use the results as a model for bringing arts, historical and cultural organizations in other cities together to work as a group. 

“This is unique in the region,” Bury said. “You have the ability to come together.” 

The city’s arts and cultural strengths were many and “that’s the easy part,” Bury said. Participants listed the city’s rich history, including Native American and African American history, its varied architecture, parks, waterfront and numerous events. 

Then came the mixed reactions, chuckles and mumbles at the mention of Benedict Arnold, a Norwich native, as part of that rich history. Norwich has made some efforts over the years to acknowledge Arnold’s local ties, including a Benedict Arnold-themed pub crawl, a musical play exploring his motives and character, and a walking tour of his boyhood jaunts. 

“Nobody else can claim him,” said Greg Farlow, president of the Society of the Founders of Norwich, which runs the historic Leffingwell House Museum. The museum has hosted an Arnold re-enactor program. 

“We’ll put him in the corner,” Bury said, writing Arnold’s name on the giant yellow pad where she collected ideas expressed by the group.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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