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Cultural Shock: The Arts' New Role in State Branding

The Arts Now Seen As a Major Player in Economic Development's "Place-Making" Strategy

By FRANK RIZZO

January 29, 2012

Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom looks out at a theater full of stony-faced arts leaders, many of whom are curious, anxious or skeptical, at what the governor's point person to their community is about to tell them.

It's the first of a series of forums this one at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and Bergstrom, the former director of the commission on arts and tourism and now new deputy commissioner at the Department of Economic & Community Development, is there to tell the crowd of 200 that state arts funding is fundamentally changing with the majority of its $3 million in operational grants being repurposed.

The up-side to such an unsettling news, he says, is that the arts are about to play a major role not just a supporting one in Connecticut's economic development and future.

At first glance, Bergstrom does not seem to be the person you would cast as the agent of such a dynamic change, the leader whose task is to energize and help reshape a community and the man charged with making Connecticut's cities "cool."

A big man with horned-rimmed glasses, goatee and white bushy hair, the 59-year-old Bergstrom looks like the professorial, policy-making insider that he's been for decades. Though his speech is low key, what he has to say is as dramatic as anything the crowd has heard regarding its relationship to the state.

Bergstrom says state funding will not be as plentiful for basic operating needs. The funds will shift to projects that have greater impact on their communities, especially cities. But those groups that embrace the new arts order could benefit from greater audiences and funding down the line.

His talk is illustrated with visuals featuring the kind of high-profile, public art works that he hopes will be created in Connecticut from the first big initiative that was announced the night before (Jan. 23) at the governor's mansion in Hartford. Arts leaders, many of whom had never been invited to the official residence before, and mayors from around the state gathered to hear Gov. Dannel P. Malloy kick off the "City Canvases Initiative."

As many as 11 cities could exhibit the work of state artists in public spaces on large blank walls around communities. A total of $1 million in funding will be provided by the state with an additional $1 million sought from private and local matches. Cities must partner with arts organization from their regions for the project.

Malloy called it a "substantial down-payment to the arts," which he sees as integral in re-branding the state as a beacon for innovation and new businesses.

"The arts are going to be part of how we're going to introduce Connecticut to the 49 states and to the rest of the world," said Malloy.

Attitude Changing

At the Long Wharf forum, Frances "Bitsie" Clark, a former New Haven arts executive and alderwoman, says, "I came negative and I turned positive. What made me turn around was I began to see this as an attitude-changing operation and a real cultural switch. Before it was, 'Art can help with economic development.' Now here's Economic Development [Department] saying, 'We can't do it without art.' "

Clark says she is still concerned about bottom-line funding to arts groups who now have to make up for that loss in state support, as well as the quality of the new projects. "But those are operational questions. What we're talking about here is a real shift to making art valued and this has real potential. The money will follow."

Cindy Clair, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, says she also hears concerns from smaller organizations "worried about whether they can be competitive with larger ones in this new dynamic.

"But framing the arts in a new way in terms of economic development stands to strengthen our role in communities and our perception in state government," she says.

Clair also says change is difficult for arts groups that sometimes move in measured, if not glacial, ways. "Some of the [anxiety] is adjusting to change that is challenging. So much of the world is changing and this is our piece of that bigger change. We can't do business-as-usual and perhaps this change from the state will make it happen quicker."

Moving Quickly

Speed is of the essence for the governor and Bergstrom, who was appointed in March, first as executive director of the commission and then in the expanded role of deputy commission when the agency was merged into DECD. Proposals for the City Canvases projects are due next month; selections will be made by the DECD in March with the art in place in communities by spring.

Bergstrom has also fundamentally realigned his staff to make them focus on regions and engage with area arts councils rather than be responsible for specific functions such as grants or education.

In a recent interview with Bergstrom in his office in downtown Hartford, he says "we are going to continue to support the arts but it's not going to be without strings attached. We want to have impact, effectiveness and engagement. We want artistic merit but we also want significant impact on a community."

Because the state is in the middle of a biennial budget, Bergstrom hopes to make a strong case in the coming year for additional state support for the arts in terms of economic development for the next biennial budget in 2013.

The marching orders are coming directly from an engaged and energetic governor, he says. "This governor has a personal interest in the arts and sees it as an essential part of place-making and as a catalyst for economic development."

Indeed, the arts hit home for Malloy with the governor's wife, Cathy Malloy, named last fall as the new CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

Beacon To Innovation

The impact Bergstrom wants to make is rooted in a re-branding of the state as a place that attracts innovation and new businesses and jobs.

"In Connecticut, we're long on mature companies and their suppliers but short on young, fast-growing companies," says Bergstrom, whose up-graded position from arts commission to DECD deputy makes him think of the new role as "the commissioner of innovation and place-making."

"Place making" is Bergstrom's favorite mantra.

"There's a certain value in arts for arts sake,' he says, "but there's a greater value in how art animates places, makes them interesting and makes young talent want to go to that place."

Bergstrom says Connecticut's small cities, that are already have a strong arts base, are well positioned to attract new young talent "who want to make an impact, who want to have a place they can help make, a place that's not done yet, that's still a work-in-progress, that's kind of cool and they can make cooler. That's our sweet spot. But I think we can do a better job of revealing the coolness we already have and make ourselves cooler."

Bergstrom admits he is the most unlikely looking man to be pulling on the levers of hipness. "A friend said I wasn't just a fashion challenge, I was a fashion Everest. Besides, you can't claim to be cool. It's bestowed upon you."

The projects, he is quick to point out, will come from the imaginations of the creative community.

The new stragey also dovetails with the pro-active approach to partnering the arts to other governmental deopartments espoused by Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The state arts agencies in Colorado and Connecticut really get it in terms of the power of the arts to transform neighborhoods, cities and states," says Landesman. "With the changes undertaken to the structure of their respective arts agencies, it's clear that their leadership shares my view that the arts can and do enhance people's quality of life and promote the distinctive identities of the communities in their states.

"I am proud that the governor and Kip Bergstrom have credited the NEA's 'Our Town'grant to 'Project Storefronts' in New Haven as the inspiration for increasing Connecticut's investment in the arts. I look forward to working with them and following their support of Connecticut's arts community."

Funding Switch

Bergstrom says for the current fiscal year not-for-profit arts groups will see no change in their funding with the aim of making "a graceful transition."

But starting in July, the majority of funds will go for special projects that will act as catalysts for "place-making for cities, towns and villages. What I mean by catalytic change is that it sets off a chain reaction and has impact beyond the specific project."

Operational money to groups that comes from the state arts endowment which now spins off $900,000 will continue as is, as required by statute, but additional operational grants from the newly named Office of the Arts will be dramatically reduced. Bergstrom points out that these operational grants often make a tiny part of an organization's budget, "around 1 percent," he says.

But the $3 million that the state gives in these arts grants pales in comparison to the $12 million in line items bestowed on a select group of arts organizations by the legislature over the years. "It creates two classes of citizenship in the arts," says Bergstrom of the earmarks, "and if you don't have a line item you feel like chopped liver."

Among the line item recipients are: International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Ivoryton Playhouse and Garde Center for the Arts in New London.

The line items go against the tide of what makes sense for art and for the state, says Bergstrom., who wants to shift the money to competitive, high-impact grants. He hopes to reduce the size of the line items but acknowledges that it is unlikely they will be eliminated. "If we can reduce it by half, I'd declare victory."

Alternative Thinking

Bergstrom, who grew up in Los Angeles and "came of age in the '60s," is the son of an artist mother and a businessman father. He was the first student at Harvard University to specialize in urban economic development "even though nobody knew what it meant." His experience in Cambridge and Boston came "at a frothy time" where alternative public policy thinking was vigorously being explored by the new generation of leaders

In the mid-'70s, Bergstrom worked in Hartford designing alternative high school programs "that were 20 years ahead of its time but as soon as the talent left, the old guard killed it." He still thinks of it as his single most important achievement.

He later worked in the private sector, in banking as well as manufacturing, before returning to a public role as Stamford's first economic development director from 1993 to 1998. He was also executive director of the Rhode Island Policy Council, a private/public partnership that developed a regional economic strategy. Bergstrom returned to Stamford in 2008 as executive director of the redevelopment commission.

He lives in Old Saybrook with his wife.

Other public arts forums will be Feb. 1, 9:30 to11:30 a.m. at Thomaston Opera House, Thomaston; Feb. 8, 10 a.m. to noon at the Westport Country Playhouse; Feb. 14, 3 to 5 p.m. at Quinebaug Valley Community College, Danielson; Feb. 15, 2 to 4 p.m. at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

For more information on the Office on the Arts: http://www.cultureandtourism.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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