Campus Advisory

Bridgeport Arts and Cultural Council a reality -- at last

By Phyllis A.S. Boros, Staff Writer, CT Post
Published: 04:53 p.m., Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bridgeport, long devoid of a marketing arm to promote its quality-of-life assets, finally has an Arts & Cultural Council -- and a Washington, D.C., marketing veteran to head the fledgling organization.

Penny Harrison, who for more than 25 years has specialized in the management of nonprofit agencies, has been chosen from among 40 candidates to lead the council, according to Robbin Zella, director of the Housatonic Museum of Art and one of the community activists instrumental in the group's formation.

Ripe for development

The appointment -- made by Zella and other members of the council's steering committee -- is effective immediately. Contacted in Virginia, where she has homes in Charlottesville and White Stone, Harrison said her primary responsibility as executive director will be to organize and enlarge the city's arts and cultural community so that it can play a larger role in the city's economic growth and renaissance.

The part-time position comes with a $30,000 salary; Harrison has a one-year contract that is renewable.

"There is so much potential here; it's so ripe for development. In fact, anytime you have a community located on the water, it should be the focus of a lot of tourism."

Jump-starting Bridgeport's economy through the arts will be "a big challenge . . . and I want to be a part of that."

Harrison said that she is aware that Bridgeport has had to deal with corrupt public officials, empty promises and bad luck, but does not intend to dwell on the past.

"There are enough good people here to make this work. I'm going to keep the blinders on and concentrate on moving forward. I'm starting out with a blank canvas."

Her appointment follows more than four years of planning, during which a cultural assessment was completed, in part, with U.S. Small Business Administration funding.

That study, done by Massachusetts-based community planning consultant Dr. Craig Dreeszen, determined that the city desperately needed to better promote its individual artists and nonprofit groups, noting that a vibrant arts/culture scene is important to any community as a economic engine and is essential for Bridgeport in particular as a draw for investors, developers and young professionals.

Housatonic Community College President Anita Gliniecki will formally introduce Harrison to Bridgeport at a free, public reception Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. at the college's Housatonic Museum of Art. HCC is serving as the fiscal agent for the council and is donating office space for two years.

Providing the first-year funding

Securing start-up monies, especially with the implosion of the economy, was especially challenging, Zella noted, but was made possible because the funders "understand how important this is to Bridgeport and its future." Providing first-year funding are the Fairfield County Community Foundation, $25,000; the Werth Family Foundation of Woodbridge, $15,000; the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, $5,000; and the City of Bridgeport, $2,000.

Harrison, who is a self-taught mixed-media artist, will continue to live in Virginia with her husband, Joe Latham, a maker of stringed instruments -- and their chocolate Labrador, Indie.

The couple have two sons in their 20s who are both musicians. In Bridgeport, Harrison is renting a furnished apartment from a friend; she plans to spend a minimum of 10 days per month in the Park City and to "also will work remotely" from Virginia.

Her first and most pressing job will be to secure nonprofit status (tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code available to religious, educational, charitable, scientific and literary groups among others), which would aid the group in its fundraising goals, she said.

Not a cultural wasteland

As executive director, Harrison said she also will work to combat the notion, rife in suburbia, that Bridgeport continues to be an arts/cultural wasteland, when in fact the city boasts several nonprofits that many American cities of similar size would be overjoyed to have -- gems such as the Barnum Museum, Housatonic Museum of Art (with one of the largest art collections owned by a two-year college in America, valued at more than $11 million); Discovery Museum, Greater Bridgeport Symphony, the Klein Memorial Auditorium, Playhouse on the Green, City Lights Gallery, Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Bridgeport Public Library and Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo. And given its proximity to Manhattan, the Park City is home to numerous individual visual artists, musicians, dancers and actors as well, she added.

Harrison pointed out that she has worked in nonprofit management in various capacities -- such as president, executive director, senior manager, project director, fundraiser, event producer, writer and public speaker -- and has produced arts events at the United States Capitol, Smithsonian Institution, Kennedy Center and National Science Foundation, all in Washington, D.C.

Her resume also notes that she is the founder of Hispanic Designers Inc., a national nonprofit that she managed for 18 years, where she was responsible for raising hundreds of thousand of dollars, providing scholarships for young clothing designers and producing live runway shows.

She also ran a $7 million public service campaign for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developing a campaign for AIDS education. She also is an Emmy Award-winning creative director for more than 50 public service announcements.

Harrison's professional certificates include those from the Fund Raising School at Indiana University. She received an associate's degree from American University in Washington, D.C., and also studied at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

She is now completing her bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she intends to pursue a master's degree in arts administration.

Tapping into the `creative workers'

"I believe the arts can mean prosperity for Bridgeport," Harrison said.

According to Harrison, author Richard Florida points out in his book, "Cities and the Creative Class," that more than 5 million "creative workers" live in the Boston-to-Washington D.C., corridor.

And Bridgeport, she said, is becoming well-positioned "to draw some of those workers to our city with reasonable rents, condo sales, factory space, studio space, tax credits" and a host of other enticements.

"Maybe I'm being very naive, but I think it's time that we go for it."

Harrison may be reached by calling 203-505-0200 or via e-mail at Penny.BridgeportArtsandCulture@gmail.com. The council's mailing address is Housatonic Community College, 900 Lafayette Boulevard, Room C 108/Mailstop 161, Bridgeport, CT 06604. A council Web page is expected to be launched next month.