Downtown arts center may fall silent due to economy

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Mar. 8, 2011
The Norwich Arts Center's downtown gallery, theater and offices may be closing May 1 due to lack of funding. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
The Norwich Arts Center's downtown gallery, theater and offices may be closing May 1 due to lack of funding. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The Norwich Arts Center may have hosted a packed house for its Celtic fiddle concert March 4, but there’s a real possibility that its third-floor theater and street-level gallery may fall silent this spring, yet another victim of the economic downturn.

The president of the art center’s board, Peter Leibert, said recently that the center may be forced to close up shop in May “if we don’t hear something from the city as far as any sort of support.”

Leibert said that the loss of funding from the city of Norwich three years ago meant that the center had to lose its part-time paid staffer. Since then, he said, “things became more and more difficult.” He said the center really needs someone who can keep the facility up and running, answer questions and trouble-shoot problems.

Currently, the center is running at a monthly deficit of about $3,500 in operating expenses and mortgage costs, said Leibert. That’s even factoring in the income from its First Fridays concerts. The center is now run entirely by volunteers.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said that the Norwich Arts Council was initially funded by the city as a way to promote further business downtown. But the city council decided that it couldn’t sustain its funding for any arts organizations in the face of the current recession.

Nystrom said that the city will be meeting later this month with representatives of the Mohegan Tribe’s Sachem Fund. The fund had partnered with the city in bankrolling the arts center, and might be one avenue of further support in the current crisis, he said.

But Nystrom added that the arts center might need to change its operations to stay afloat. “They need to reconfigure the use of the building,” he said. “The gallery on the first floor really doesn’t generate a hell of a lot of income.”

Leibert said that one city council member suggested the arts center open a coffeehouse on the first floor of its Broadway building. “That’s not what we’re about,” Leibert said. Such a business would need to sell about 400 cups of coffee each day to break even, according to research by the arts center board.

“We have paid our dues to the city of Norwich,” said Leibert. “We established the First Fridays, the art shows, the concerts, the theater. The city has to take some responsibility for the downtown to survive.

“If you’ve got the arts in place, you’re going to get economic development,” he said. “It pulls people downtown. People come to where there’s stuff going on.”

Nystrom said that he proposed having the post office move into the gallery space as a tenant after it vacates the current post office building on Main Street. The post office is considering moving to a new facility near the Bozrah town line, but Nystrom said, “As mayor, I insist that they have a retail presence in downtown.”

Leibert said he’s open to that possibility, adding that stamps and art might be a creative mix of uses. “People would take note of that – the city’s being creative. I would like to think it would improve people’s outlook,” he said.

In the meantime, Leibert said that the center needs both a sound business plan and an assured source of cash flow. Stopgap fundraising isn’t the solution, he said. “The last thing we want to do is just raise a chunk of change. Then next year we’re going to be in the same place where we are now.

“We can’t be just a private organization,” said Leibert. “Fresh new energy – that’s what we need.”


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