Fairfield arts groups wilting in tough economy
Updated 9:03 am, Sunday, January 8, 2012
A dark side of the continuing economic slump is the toll inflicted on some of the brightest lights in Fairfield's arts community.
Sacred Heart University will close its Gallery of Contemporary Art at the end of this academic year.
Another victim is ArtPlace, a collective gallery of area artists, which for many years made its home at the Southport Railroad Station. But the gallery was displaced after a fire in January 2008, and did not reopen there after the depot was rebuilt. Instead, ArtPlace moved to a downtown space on Unquowa Road near Las Vetas lounge, but earlier this year shut down that venue. It is now operating out of space at Fairfield Interiors, an interior design company run by Ellen Hyde Phillips, after whom the Fairfield Arts Center's gallery was named.
When a national movie theater chain shut down the Community Theatre 10 years ago, local businessman Leo Redgate stepped in and set up a non-profit foundation. Staffed by high school volunteers, the movie screens at the downtown landmark lit up again. But the non-profit theater has been dark since September, though according to Redgate, he still hopes to find a new manager to step in and take over.
According to Randy Weiss, chairman of the arts center's executive board, funding has been a challenge and the board has struggled the last several years with trying to keep the center's finances afloat.
"I think what we recognized was that traditional funding sources were becoming less and less available to us," Weiss said, a predicament he said is facing many arts organizations these days. "It wasn't a particular amount of money that we needed, it was really identifying a sustainable revenue stream."
And that's difficult, he said, when an institution produces no tangible product, unlike a concert at the Fairfield Theatre Co. or a movie at the Community. "Our product was much less tangible. Our organization's intent was to support artists, provide education for artists and outreach programs," Weis said. "All these things are programs, rather than product."
Another problem, Weiss said, is the "graying" of traditional arts benefactors along with the recession. Arts groups need to begin to engage a younger audience, he said. The FAC, for example, was planning to do an outreach program involving rap music, something not considered "traditional art" by the demographic groups that generally support cultural arts programs.
It needs to be recognized that the audience now coming of age doesn't see art the same way, Weiss said, and the kinds of art seen as untraditional by a 50-year-old are considered traditional by a 20-something.
Weiss is optimistic that there will be some positive movement in support of Fairfield arts groups in the not-too-distant future. "I'm optimistic that there will be a definite renaissance in the future," he said. But, he added, people need to realize that the landscape of the cultural arts locally may not look the same.
"The dimming of these radiant light bulbs around the community, vibrantly alive art spaces, is surely a cause for concern," Eliasoph said. "Their hidden assets are undervalued -- their added dimensions are Fairfield's unique treasures."
He said the news should prompt more than "just an instinctive, head-shaking, `Oh dear, that's regrettable response.' "
For Miles Marek, until recently the director of the Fairfield Theatre Co., the arts center's neighbor on Sanford Street, the problem is not only undervaluing artists, but undervaluing philanthropy and not-for-profit organizations.
While very wealthy people live in Fairfield, Marek said, there is a "hostile" attitude toward philanthropy and nonprofits. "This is not just Fairfield," he added.
"Fairfield has yet to develop a sense of itself as a culturally driven community," he said. "It's always been a sleepy little town and it's only been in the last 10 years that the arts really began to flourish. But without the foundation of a strong philanthropic base, it can't survive."
Marek said last year the FTC took in $3 million through shows at Stage One and The Klein in Bridgeport, which it manages.
But a telling statistic, he said, is that the organization made more money selling liquor than it received in large donations. And, he said, the FTC established a "low-level" membership fee for people at a more grassroots level.
"We got much more of that type of participation," Marek said.
That, he said, is "not healthy, it's not philanthropic, and yet the FTC is standing because of the sacrifices of the staff."
At the same time, Marek said, there are Fairfield residents who give large amounts of money -- the average is typically $50,000, according to a 2010 New York Times story -- to sit on the boards of museums and arts institutions in New York City. "People are willing to do it for the social cachet," Marek said.
He said when local residents do make sizeable donations, they expect to have more a say in how an organization is run, and often want to use a profit-driven business as a model.
Eliasoph said community leaders and invested families need to take a step back "and at arm's length come to fully understand the consequences of allowing the arts to wither on the vine." He also sits on the Connecticut Commission of the Arts, and said there is ample evidence and data that shows for every $1 invested in the arts, about $11 returns to local businesses through things like tourism, restaurants and retail sales.
Eliasoph points to neighborhoods like Chelsea and Brooklyn in New York City, Hoboken in New Jersey and Miami, where he said art galleries, live performances and art spaces have sparked a renaissance.
"The arts are unquestionably a good value for towns, as well as being intrinsic to the quality of life we all seek," he said. "Leveraging the assets of Fairfield's creative sector is the gateway to re-vitalizing and re-energizing the economic recovery we are all awaiting."
The news about the Fairfield Arts Center was not what town Community and Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart wanted to hear, either.
"I'm sorry to lose a partner," Barnhart said. "We've worked with the Fairfield Arts Center in the past on a number of issues. I'm saddened by their departure." He said that hopefully it is just a temporary setback and the arts organization will be able to reconstitute itself in the near future.
"Overall, it's a not huge a blow in terms of where the downtown is, but obviously the arts and live entertainment venues are important to any downtown," Barnhart said.
He said the town is doing what it can to bolster those venues downtown "to create that dynamic environment people look for." While the center is closing, the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, a regional organization that shared the space at 70 Sanford St., will continue to operate there.
Ryan Odinak, executive director of the Cultural Alliance, said she's saddened by the news.
"I know it was a difficult decision for their board," she said. "It has provided a vibrant venue for visual art and some good community programs."
But it's a challenge running a non-profit group these days, Odinak said. "Fairfield is thriving today and arts and culture are part of what make it a great town," she said. "Strong arts and cultural assets are important to the vitality of all communities."
Odinak points to the FTC as an economic engine that attracts people downtown, and said other organizations, like the Fairfield Museum and History Center and the town's libraries, continue to deliver great programs.
"The closing of the Fairfield Arts Center should be a reminder to the community that the non-profits they value cannot be taken for granted," she said. "People need to get involved and support them."
And supporting arts groups, Marek said, means people need to approach non-profits with a sense of giving, not one of, "I want to control this." He also said many people don't realize until they do get involved how hard it is to keep a non-profit going.
"I'm a showman, I'm not an artiste," Marek said.
"It's hard, it's very hard to run a not-for-profit." It doesn't matter whether "one is a waitress or an heiress," he said. "If you care and support the arts, do it to the extent you can."