Does the loss of the Fairfield Arts Center mark a crisis?
Kristin Rasich Fox knows printmaker Nomi Silverman creates the kind of provocative art that makes people stop, think and shudder in discomfort. And Kristin’s right—Nomi’s late 2011 show at the Fairfield Arts Center’s gallery was typical of the artist’s emotionally raw works: Nomi showed three of her critically acclaimed print series; one inspired by the brutal 1998 murder of gay Wyoming teenager Matthew Shepard. The other two in the series were inspired by the homeless and the dramatic arcs of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As the Glenville-based artist drily puts it, “It wasn’t light fare.”
The exhibition was also typical of the kind of statement-making gallery experience that Kristin, the now defunct FAC’s executive director, strived to bring to town during her seventeen-month tenure. “I wanted to give artists a place to express themselves and spark the kinds of conversations good art should. Being in downtown Fairfield, we were perfectly situated to draw people in, and we were doing that,” she says. The gallery was located in a compact Sanford Street space adjacent to the Fairfield Theatre Company. But despite attracting an audience, Nomi Silverman’s exhibition was FAC’s last: In November its board voted to dissolve the fourteen-year-old nonprofit and close the gallery. It cited the lack of a viable, long-term business plan as its reason for folding. “I would have volunteered to keep the gallery running,” Kristin says. “But I just couldn’t overcome the determination of the board that we needed to close our doors.”
For Kristin, a passionate advocate for the role the arts play in the cultural and economic life of Fairfield, FAC’s closure was about more than losing a job and gallery space she had revitalized and loved. It also represents a microcosm of a bigger problem arts’ nonprofits are experiencing in Fairfield and beyond. Across-the-country cuts in state and federal funding as well as dwindling charitable contributions and subscribership have stressed major symphonies and theater companies to the point of bankruptcy. “I think in Fairfield, what we have is an arts crisis,” Kristin says. “For small, community arts organizations, there has to be a better model of sustainability.”
Last year was gloomy for the colorful tableau of arts organizations that distinguish Fairfield from some of its suburban neighbors: Sacred Heart University announced its Gallery for Contemporary Art will close this May and Fairfield University’s Walsh Art Gallery cut staff. Meanwhile, the Community Theatre, downtown’s historic cinema art house, went dark after protracted financial struggles. Nomi Silverman was shocked to learn of the FAC’s dissolution, especially after her successful show—it attracted opening-night visitors from as far away as New York City. “Normally when I have an opening, it’s my friends, but half the room was strangers. Kristin managed to build interest in the show that extended way beyond my own following,” she says. “But it seems like whenever times are tough, the first thing they want to jettison is the visual arts. It’s too bad because I see it as a quality-of-life issue. People constantly underestimate the value the arts bring to a community.”
First Selectman Michael Tetreau, who has been vocal about his support for the downtown arts scene, calls the loss of the FAC gallery “a disappointment.” Tetreau says, “After ten years, I wished they had had more momentum.” The gallery’s closure was part of what motivated him to announce during his January 22 State of the Town speech that he is forming a town arts council, which will be charged, among other things, with exploring the serious challenges local cultural institutions are facing. “The broader issue here is that the arts and cultural organizations have had a major impact on the resurgence of [downtown] Fairfield,” says Tetreau. “Having been born and raised here, I can tell you that downtown is a very different place because of their presence. We all know they’ve had a positive impact, and yet they are struggling.” Tetreau says a variety of forces have conspired to stress organizations such as the FAC, the Community Theatre and the university galleries. “When we talk to people at the state level, what we hear is that these problems are happening everywhere. From the state’s perspective, the focus is on giving [its arts dollars] to the cities, and that’s certainly not going to benefit us.”
“Some folks can panic over it, but I think what we have here is an opportunity,” says Tetreau. “We’re not starting from zero. We have a wonderful base [of arts organizations], but when we look closely, I think we’ll find there’s a lot of overlap—in fundraising, in board members. We need to be looking at what kind of things we already have and what we need and focusing on long-term planning and sustainability.” As for the vacant FAC gallery, Tetreau says he’s had some conversations with the Fairfield Theatre Company, which leases the space it once shared with FAC from the town, about possible future uses. Nothing had been announced at press time. Standing in the vacant gallery space, Kristen offers her own vision: “I’d like to see some real art back on these walls.”