MY ART STORY by

Louisa Calio

East Haven
Connecticut

Bella Vista Reading 2 - Copy.jpg

Young woman dancing in front of seniors in audience.

Louisa Calio performing for seniors at Bella Vista Housing. Photo courtesy of artist

“Songs go unsung
Rites remain unperformed
Poems unpresented
While we still hunger for the spirit.”
-Louisa Calio from the collection In the Eye of Balance

The story I want to share is both an NEA story and a personal story that began with a bicentennial project of the NEA in 1976, when I was hired to coordinate a grant awarded to New Haven, Connecticut—one of 76 cities chosen by President Jimmy Carter to celebrate our nation’s birthday—by bringing the arts and the community together in a variety of ways. We choose to do several events, as well as arts programs, in halfway houses, senior centers, and schools. The program was so successful, the original board of directors decided to expand it. We applied again to the NEA, which gave us another grant to continue our budding programs which now included arts on the New Haven Green, in convalescent homes, jails, hospitals, centers, as well as other places.

My career went from coordinator to first executive director and founding member of what become City Spirit Artists. Through additional funding—including CETA,(the Comprehensive Employment Training Act) the New Haven Foundation, and Connecticut Commission of the Arts—we were able to hire artists full- and part-time to teach, to direct murals, and to offer arts programs. We brought crafts like batik making to prisoners; painting to seniors; music to inner-city children; writing, dance and drama to hospice patients; and more. We also expanded opportunities for artists as well, including them in decision making, roles on on our board, and opportunities to share their work. We brought artists of all races and backgrounds together with business people to do it all. City Spirit served the greater New Haven community for 25 years! Yes, an opportunity from the NEA inspired a 25-year commitment to arts in our lives that had to close its doors when funding sadly dried up. Sadly, because we still have the need more than ever and each dollar went so far.

Over those years we hired hundreds of artists to paint hospitals, teach, perform, write, sing, dance, in hundreds of settings, reaching the hearts of thousands. It helped grow my dual career as an artist/poet and administrator.

Despite all the challenges, many of the people in City Spirit still remain in the arts, managing as best as we can. I recently directed the Poets and Writers Pizza for Hofstra University’s Italian Experience for 12 years, was finalist for poet laureate of Nassau County, and won first prize from the city of Messina, Sicily for a poem in my latest book, Journey to the Heart Waters. Value for dollar, the arts gives us so much more than people imagine.