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Arts As Essential, Not An Option

September 28, 2005

Arts and culture are often viewed as ornaments, not as essentials of public life in Connecticut.

And that's the problem.

"How do we make the point that the arts ... aren't merely nice to have, but [are] `must haves' in our society?" asked Kenneth R. Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, addressing a group of 75 arts advocates at the Mark Twain House Museum Tuesday.

Kahn's question launched a discussion titled "Arts & Heritage: Climbing to the Top of the Urban Agenda," sponsored by the MetLife Foundation, part of the Arts and Business Council of Americans for the Arts' National Arts Forum Series.

Some of the presentations focused on an historical overview of Hartford and the role of art and architecture in civic life, but much of it focused on economic realities.

Specifically, how can a municipality get the money that would spur growth and development of the arts industry. Two speakers, both from New York City, spoke of their respective organizations' successes in obtaining public money and putting it to use.

Harvey Lichtenstein, director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corporation, spoke of the transformation of his organization from a $650,000 institution in 1967 to a $25 million institution today. His goal throughout was "to develop a district that would be supportive of the cultural life in Brooklyn," he said.

So, beginning with first $17 million from the city and then an additional $50 million from the city, Lichtenstein and his team built cinemas, expanded programming and, eventually, attracted artists. In short, the arts can drive the economy, he said.

"What is happening in New York -- and it's happening in Harlem, and it's happening in Long Island City in Queens, and it's happening in the Bronx -- is that there's a real spread of artists which tends to bring developers in for all kinds of activities," he said.

Maurine Knighton, senior vice president for program and nonprofit investment at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, spoke of methods to both help arts institutions and inspire economic development. Her organization's goal is broader -- to have arts organizations become self-sustaining.

"Although many of our partners approach this from a real estate deal perspective, sometimes real estate may be involved, and sometimes it may not," Knighton said.

But her organization, like Lichtenstein's, began cash strong -- $100 million from the federal government, $100 million from the city and $100 million from the state, she said. And the sense in the room Tuesday was that such amounts of money are not available in Connecticut.

"How do you get bottom-line-driven people in the public sector to understand that supporting the arts is an integral component in creating economic development?" asked David G. Woods, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts and the event's moderator.

Andrew Walsh, an historian and Trinity College visiting assistant professor of religion, responded that public sector financing cannot be the only answer, and that good economic times will bring good times for arts institutions.

"Going to the government appears to work well in New York City," he said to laughter. "But the real issues really are about patronage and what kinds of communities support art and architecture."

Knighton said the answer in New York has been persistence. "Repetition breeds retention," she said, saying she makes her case to legislators early and often.

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.
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