State legislators hear calls for greater access to arts, culture, tourism

·4 min read

Dec. 4—HARTFORD — With COVID-19 waning earlier this year, Gov. Ned Lamont launched "Summer at the Museum," extending free admission for kids and their families to scores of museums and other attractions across the state.

The program didn't just give kids something to do.

It provided many of them with rich experiences that otherwise would have been beyond their reach. And that should be among the state's goals as it considers support for arts, culture and tourism, participants in a forum Friday at the Connecticut Science Center told legislators.

During the forum, Noelle Stevenson, a veteran of tourism and hospitality groups in South Florida, was introduced as the new director of the state's Office of Tourism. Her appointment is expected to be made public next week.

"The summer program was extremely successful," Steve Coan, Mystic Aquarium's president and chief executive officer, said of "Summer at the Museum." "It gave access to those who couldn't otherwise pay. We saw diversity. We saw new customers. State funding was opening doors."

Coan was joined on a panel by Calida Jones, president of the board of directors of the Connecticut Arts Alliance, and Jason Mancini, executive director of Connecticut Humanities.

Lamont and David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which oversees arts, culture and tourism, addressed forum participants.

"Last year was tough on tourism and we're not out of the woods yet," said Lamont, referring to a recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. He said Connecticut residents flocked to parks and golf courses during the pandemic while other states closed down such facilities.

He told the "stakeholders" in attendance they were key to the state's economic future.

Lehman introduced Stevenson, who succeeds Randy Fiveash, who retired in the spring after heading the state tourism office for more than 12 years. Christine Castonguay, who had served as interim director since Fiveash's departure, remains with the office as director of marketing, Lehman said.

In a brief interview between forum sessions, Stevenson said she was attracted to the job because of all Connecticut has to offer.

"There's so much product here," she said. "I tell people there are 169 reasons to visit Connecticut," a reference to the state's 169 towns.

Stevenson has been vice president of film, music, fashion and creative culture for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau and before that was an associate vice president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said Stevenson will soon visit the chamber.

Sheridan, who participated in the forum, said he also attended a state economic summit the previous day and heard much that was positive at both events.

"For a change, we have some decent money to promote tourism, and there's an increased level of activity," he said. "The big question is can it continue? A lot of this money is coming from the feds for (post-pandemic) economic recovery. When we broke up into smaller groups, the vast majority were saying this is great, but do we fall off a cliff when all this money is gone?"

During the forum's opening panel, Jones, the Connecticut Arts Alliance board president, called for a "radical reimagination" of the way the state distributes funding to organizations. She said more people of color need to be among the decision-makers.

"When do we start nurturing our own?" Jones said of limited opportunities for artists. She said she sees a lot of empty buildings in the state, yet frequently hears there's not enough space for arts centers.

"We've got to do better by our state," she said.

Mancini, formerly the executive director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, noted the legislature and the governor have approved $30.7 million of support over the next two years to help cultural organizations recover from the pandemic. He said more than 700 organizations had applied for the $16 million in grants Connecticut Humanities will award later this month.

The grants will help organizations connect K-12 teachers and students to strong humanities and arts content, and improve their information technology and digital infrastructure.

Friday's forum was organized by the legislature's Arts, Culture and Tourism Caucus, which comprises more than 60 members of both chambers of the General Assembly. Sen. Paul Formica, an East Lyme Republican, and Rep. Dorinda Borer, a West Haven Democrat, co-chair the caucus. Nearly all southeastern Connecticut legislators are members.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com