Efraim Silva, a UAI participant and master of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, teaches students Maculele, a stick dance originating on Brazilian sugar cane plantations. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.)
A well-known Chinese proverb says, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." In that spirit of providing tools and knowledge toward the goal of self-sufficiency, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts launched a program in 1992 to train artists and arts organizations in how to operate as a business for long-term success.
The first step for the arts commission was to uncover the needs and visions of a community in order to create systematic and significant change. A key element in the process was the commission's partnership with the Institute for Community Research (ICR), a nonprofit whose expertise in community-based research and organizing proved invaluable. The commission and ICR chose to begin with Bridgeport, which had fallen on hard times like many other industrial northeastern cities, and which was regarded by some as a cultural wasteland.
The artists living in Bridgeport shared many of the challenges of other urban artists and institutions—inadequate opportunities to network, perform and exhibit. The city's community organizations that produced art or presented cultural events faced similar obstacles of insufficient resources, training and facilities. Bridgeport was the testing ground for the ideas that led to creation of the arts commission's Urban Artists Initiative (UAI), which has since expanded into seven other cities—Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, Norwalk and Stamford.
"This program is about getting organized. It's about knowing where to find the things I need. A lot of it is seeing how artists who are making a living at their art do it," says New Haven artist Scott Kessel.
Mentorships and Training Build a Bridge
The UAI's four core activities—fieldwork, training, mentorship and financial assistance—began with an inventory of Bridgeport's cultural resources, which helped the arts commission develop a list of prospective participants. Artists and organizations that reflected the diverse traditions of the city were sought as prospects. Artists were immersed in an intensive course that gave them the tools that would help them make the arts a career rather than an avocation. Organizations participated in a similar course in arts administration. Established arts administrators and artists served as faculty, and once the education component was completed, as mentors.
Mentors teach their UAI proteges how to overcome challenges and at the same time spark a deeper understanding of their own artistic or organizational vision. In Bridgeport and elsewhere, these mentorships built a bridge between more established artists and organizations and those outside the mainstream, often represented by social clubs and other community-based groups. By facilitating partnerships with groups representing Bridgeport's many cultures, including African-American, Peruvian, Asian and Puerto Rican, the Urban Artists Initiative helped catalyze the emergence of new organizations.
One of these fledging organizations was a theater group, Urban Ensemble, founded by Rick Mitchell to present his plays to audiences in shelters, halfway houses and prisons. As a playwright, Mitchell wrote issue-oriented plays and presented voices not normally heard on stage to reach these nontraditional audiences. The UAI training program allowed Mitchell to become an entrepreneur. The lessons he learned about the business side of the arts were actualized through his mentorship with Liz Bermel, who was the managing director of a Hartford theater, Company One. Her help enabled Mitchell to address the organizational and management issues that led to a permanent home for his company.
Just as UAI seeds new organizations, it empowers individuals by giving them access to resources and contacts, and, most importantly, a chance to realize their dreams. July Rose-White was an elementary school science teacher who wrote award-winning poetry, but never thought of herself as a professional artist who could earn a living by her craft. "For me the UAI program gave me a structure. I didn't know how to market myself and the program gave me that kind of information," said Rose-White. The UAI also gave Rose-White the opportunity to practice her craft through a classroom residency program that took her through a second training and mentorship. The residency program is one of several advanced training opportunities available to UAI artists to build their careers through networking, project development and coursework.
The program that began in Bridgeport has matured into a network of site coordinators, artists and organizations in eight cities and surrounding communities. Although the participating organizations and artists receive some modest grants to finance projects, develop portfolios or purchase supplies, the bulk of the program's assistance is devoted to helping individuals make the leap to becoming professional artists and giving organizations the tools to grow. New jobs, businesses and cultural leaders more representative of the state's many cultures and ethnic groups are one result. Another is a new vitality for the participating cities. Says UAI Program Director David Marshall, "I think there are so many cultural voices out there that have not been heard, whose visions, movements, songs and dances have something for all of us. If we don't hear these things, our lives are poorer."
Year started: 1992
Participating organizations: 56 since 1992
Participating artists: 120 since 1992
Current mentors: 65
Total budget in 1992: $50,000
Total budget in 2000: $324,364