Art Works Blog

Postcard from New England

Washington, DC

Here's what my presentation to the Loeb Fellows looked like as interpreted by a graphic facilitator. Wonder if I can get this all to fit on the back of my business card?

Last week I was New England bound, with visits to Hartford, Connecticut, and Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hartford was a MICD 25 showcase and model of what we?re hoping for with Our Town. Hartford is a beautiful city, and it was great to be there physically and to visualize what can happen with its MICD 25 project---the iQuilt. This iQuilt project is really neat. There is a cultural district in Hartford that people don?t realize is there because there are different institutions and different buildings that are spread out a bit. There needs to be connections and some development. The intent of iQuilt is to make people feel like they can move from one to the other and that they?re in a cultural area. For instance, there is a main street with one of the big museums on it that is essentially barricaded from street. It needs to connect with the street, and they have plans to make a kind of greenway. And there will be signage, there will be internet connections, there will be ways for people to know that they can move from one institution to another. This project is really going to be transformative to downtown Hartford.

We?ve given a planning grant for this to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts , and it?s something that was great to see, how they?ve conceived of it and how they?ve laid it out. I met with Ronna Reynolds who is the executive director of the Bushnell. She is a real leader and has been instrumental in this project for which a lot of different elements in Hartford have come together. David Faye is also a big part of the initiative---I knew him from when he ran the Fox Theater Complex in St. Louis. He?s the Bushnell?s president and CEO, and it was great to reconnect after all these years. One of the things that I?m always hoping for is that our funding and our work can be a catalyst for the engagement of others in a place. The Educational Foundation of America---which is in Westport---is now interested in the iQuilt and is giving the project some significant funding, equal to or more than ours. If we can be an instigator or catalyst for private sector involvement for a lot of these projects, they?re going to have a lot more resources, and that?s one of the things that I?m excited about. It?s great to see the Educational Foundation step up there and get involved. That was very encouraging to me.

After Hartford, we headed to Boston. Our host for the day was Anita Walker who?s the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. We went down to the Paramount Theatre, a fantastic old theater that has been bought and renovated by Emerson College, which is itself a great story. Under the direction of Jackie Liebergott, the president who I think is a visionary, Emerson has decided to make its home downtown rather than in a suburb they could?ve easily gone to. And the Paramount Theatre has been the focal point of a revitalization of the old Combat Zone into a neighborhood that is teeming with street-life and students and arts activities. It?s another great example of how arts can transform a neighborhood or community. Emerson College has really jump-started this---they?ve headed the renovation of the Paramount and the creation of dorms above it, they have the adjacent building, and it?s all part of one big complex. I also visited another renovated old theater, the Cutler Majestic Theatre, which was great to see. It?s gorgeous, and when you see these great, old houses brought back to life, it?s thrilling.

While we were at the Paramount, I took part in a great panel discussion. Jonathan Miller, who I knew at the Yale School of Drama, was there. It turns out that Jonathan works with Rob Orchard, who I went to school with at the Yale School of Drama and then we were colleagues together when I was on the faculty there. Rob is now in charge of theater activities at Emerson.

Later that morning we visited Artists for Humanity (AFH). Susan Rogerson, who runs AFH, is a visionary and a total dynamo. AFH creates work and employment opportunities for young artists---teenagers---to get involved with art. They?re creating art ultimately to sell their art and to learn to work as artists or in another role in the arts field. It?s both an arts program and a transition-to-the-real-world employment program for young artists, and it was thrilling to see the kind of work they?re doing and how transformative that work can be.

Then in the afternoon I crossed the river and gave a talk and panel with the Loeb Fellows at Harvard. The Loeb Fellows are part of a program at Harvard?s design school in which they take a one-year immersion course of intensive design. The program is open to anyone involved in city planning and design all across the country. After they graduate, of course, they become Loeb Fellows, and there?s a whole community of them. It was a great experience because I got to be on a panel with some people that I knew and admired for a long time, but hadn?t really met. I was with Walter Hood, who is a great landscape architect and Mary Jane Jacob, who is an expert in public art. Jeremy Nowak, who I do know, was also there. As I said during my talk, he really wrote the playbook that we?re using at the NEA in terms of arts and communities. And Deborah Frieden moderated it very well, and it was a great back and forth discussion. We each gave talks, and then there was a Q&A that included questions about current activities at the NEA and what we?re involved with, since obviously design and urban revitalization are now at the center of the NEA?s activities. During their talks, Walter, Mary Jane, and Jeremy all gave case histories about how the arts can transform places. It was great to be among experts in urban renewal, urban design, and the role of arts in community building. These are the people who really know what they?re talking about, and it was a highlight of my trip. These were lessons that really I needed to know, and that we need to get out to everyone else.

You know, I think the story is really starting to roll out now about the intersection of arts and community-building, and to see what an organization like Artists for Humanity has done, to see what Emerson College has done in its community, to be on a panel with the Loeb Fellows and the people speaking to them who have case histories of what this has done all over the country, it just all adds to our story right now. And in Hartford, where we?ve already made an MICD25 grant for iQuilt, it?s just inspiring to in action a plan to use the arts to bring the community together and build a cultural district. It?s just all really an extension of and motivation for what we?re trying to do here at the NEA.

p.s. If you want to learn more about iQuilt, check out our MICD 25 Spotlight on Hartford. You can also hear more from Jeremy Nowak who guest blogged for us back in March.

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