The era of HealingNewtown programs is coming to an end.
Launched in January 2013 by Newtown Cultural Arts Commission (NCAC), with the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut and the Connecticut Office of the Arts, the HealingNewtown project has offered dozens of programs, exhibitions, and workshops since its debut. The project’s first headquarters, in a then-vacant storefront at 5 Queen Street, was also host to numerous pieces of art, some created by local residents but the majority of which were sent to Newtown in response to 12/14.
The project operated out of the Queen Street storefront until a new tenant showed interest in the location, which was being donated for NCAC’s use by a local realtor. By June, the project had relocated to the lower level of Newtown Congregational Church. Valerie Culbertson has been serving as the project’s director since November 2013. Prior to that, according to NCAC Chair Laura Lerman, “We really didn’t have a director. Everyone pitched in as well as they could. We had more volunteers than anyone ever saw.”
As the lease for the current location reaches its end, so does funding from a National Endowment for the Arts grant that has covered the cost of paying Ms Culbertson for her time and experience. NCAC made a few decisions during its July 22 meeting regarding the long-term project.
“The director’s position, as it stands, will terminate in October,” Mrs Lerman said Tuesday night. “Valerie and I talk regularly, a few times a week. She knows this.”
The grant fund will run out on October 27.
Meanwhile, NCAC also decided on Tuesday to not renew its lease with Newtown Congregational Church.
“We have to give them 60 days notice,” Mrs Lerman pointed out, in asking the board for a vote whether or not to renew NCAC’s lease for some of the classroom space at 14 West Street.
“I brought that up last night because I didn’t want to wait until the next meeting [scheduled for August 26] and take a chance that we didn’t notify them in time,” Mrs Lerman said July 23.
Another reason for HealingNewtown’s conclusion is that First Selectman Pat Llodra had reportedly asked the commission to stop using that name.
Mrs Llodra spoke with The Newtown Bee on July 24 about her request to the town’s arts commission.
“I’ve been talking with them about this for a few months,” she said. “It really has to do with what I think is helping to propel us into the future, not anchor us so much to the tragedy, and how art helps us with emotions, and moving forward, in a very positive fashion.”
The first selectman did not have a timeframe in mind for HealingNewtown when the project was launched.
“Even last year when some of the initial funding came forward around the theme of healing Newtown, I was assuming at that point that it would be short-lived, a very focus-driven initiative,” Mrs Llodra said. She was surprised, she added on Thursday, when it went beyond “six or eight months.”
“It wasn’t up to me to determine their time schedule, but I shared my sense that I thought it was time to reinvent their purpose,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with what transpired, but I think it’s time to look more broadly at the role of arts.”
NCAC’s commissioners did not disagree.
“Pat has been on the mark about everything related to 12/14,” Mrs Lerman said Wednesday afternoon. “When she decided it was good to not recognize the first anniversary, we breathed sigh of relief. Pat has been correct, realistic, and mature about everything related to 12/14.
“When she came to us about changing the name, half of us were like ‘We were going to do that anyway.’ HealingNewtown is a very emotional name, and its time has passed.”
The number of programs being offered as HealingNewtown events has certainly dwindled in recent months, through no fault of its director. While Clay Dates were always popular — most had waiting lists, said Mrs Lerman — and HealingNewtown recently hosted a five-day summer camp (which also had a waiting list), many recent programs were cancelled due to an apparent lack of interest.
“Valerie is very good at what she does,” Mrs Lerman said of the project’s director. “But if we don’t get a response, she can’t ask people to come and do these programs. We announce things on the website and ask for reservations. Many of these people lead these workshops on a volunteer basis. She organized a lot of programs, but we just didn’t get a response, so many needed to be cancelled.”
Another issue since last year has been a diminished visibility for HealingNewtown.
“Part of the problem is we aren’t seen any more. Where we were before, kids could come over after school. They could come over from the middle school and hang out. High school students could find us easily, we were right in the center of town.”
The Queen Street storefront is about a quarter of a mile from the flagpole on Main Street. So is Newtown Congregational Church. But where Queen Street is still within the center of town, and signs in the windows and above the front door used to announce the HealingNewtown location to thousands of passersby on a daily basis, the church has not been able to provide the same kind high-profile exposure.
“People had to go out of their way to find us now,” said Mrs Lerman, who, like the town’s leader, also feels it is time for NCAC to shift its focus a little.
“The energy that came out of that tragedy seems to be gone,” she said.
Arts Programs To Continue
NCAC has every intention of continuing to offer, host, and/or sponsor programs covering numerous artistic interests. Commissioners made that point clear this week.
“We will continue to present programming, so we need to investigate locations,” said NCAC Vice Chair Jennifer Johnston said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The commission expects to host programs in satellite locations.
“Look at Parks & Rec,” said Mrs Lerman. “They have their offices, but they don’t have everything there. They present things elsewhere and say ‘sponsored by Parks & Rec.’ We could do that.”
Mrs Lerman is hoping, she said, to work with Parks & Rec and/or the town library to host future NCAC programs. She plans to reach out to the organizations to discuss collaborations, she said.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, she said, has also reached out to the commission to offer use of classrooms.
“We want to make the best use of our funds and resources. If we can work with Parks & Rec or Booth Library, then we can use existing structure of those organizations,” she said. “We are trying very hard to make the best use of our money.”
While the commission had been planning to come up with a new name for its art programs and had hoped to announce the new name in conjunction with upcoming 2014 Newtown Arts Festival events, members decided Tuesday night to focus on other issues. One of the main challenges currently facing NCAC is where programs will be presented.
“Until a new space is found, why not just go with ‘sponsored by NCAC’ when we present a program,” said NCAC Secretary Robert Rabinowitz. “The formal name is not important right now.”
HealingNewtown continues to host Open Studio sessions on Saturdays from 1 to 3 pm. All ages are welcome to visit the project space to create with clay or paint, or create drawings, collages and/or sculpture. The weekly sessions are expected to continue until October 18. A $5 donation is requested at the door.
Weaving Workshop: Open Studio, on Mondays from 9 am until noon, also continues at 14 West Street. This series is expected to continue until at least September 15, and a $5 donation is requested at the door.
HealingNewtown is also currently presenting an exhibition of collage art, “Celebration of Your Life.” Work by five artists is on view in the main corridor of Newtown Municipal Center, 3 Primrose Street, weekdays from 8 am until 5 pm. A closing reception and artists’ talk is scheduled for Friday, August 8, from 5 to 7 pm.
NCAC, specifically Festival Chair Terry Sagedy, has been working on its schedule of programs for the Newtown Arts Festival, which grew last year from a two-day/weekend event into a seven-day event that culminated in the September 21-22 weekend festival at Fairfield Hills. This year’s events will begin earlier in the month, beginning before the September 13-14 event at Fairfield Hills, and will then continue for at least a week beyond that presentation.