Many people in Norwalk remember John Cusano as the owner of A Thousand Words Gallery, which became the John Cusano Gallery on Washington Street in 1982. He was the first retailer on the street following the street's renovation into a mixed-use neighborhood to draw residents, restaurateurs and retailers to jump start the area. His gallery was open until 1987.
Cusano became a prominent force in the arts community that was enjoying a resurgence thanks to the artists who were taking an active role and to the volunteers involved in the SoNo Arts Celebration. Cusano even became head of the Board of Directors that spearheaded the arts event.
Recently, Cusano, now Community Development Coordinator for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism addressed members of the city's Advisory Commission for the Arts & Culture and others interested in promoting the arts and culture in Norwalk.
He distributed a state commission booklet listing programs and services the state offers. These include artistic fellowships, grants and programs that support teaching artists, art in public spaces, arts endowments, a peer advisor network, a local arts agencies, urban artists initiatives, culture and tourism partnership grants, recognition awards and arts in education. The state even offers legal advice.
The arts division of the state commission appoints a Poet Laureate and a State Troubadour. The latter is a resident songwriter. Currently the person is Thomasina Levy. Marilyn Nelson of Storrs is completing her fifth and final year as the state's Poet Laureate.
During his talk, Cusano brought attention to the group that the state's Peer Advisory Network can be a very valuable resource for Norwalk. The program matches a non-profit organization or a community cultural group with a peer advisor for a one- or two-day consultancy. The advisor is contracted directly by the client organization with two-thirds of the $300 per day fee paid by the state commission. These are specially trained peer advisors who can help fledgling arts organizations.
The state commission is looking to assist local arts agencies that build relationships within their communities, advocate for the arts, educate and present a variety of cultural programs. Also, the state is looking to create a statewide network of local arts agencies. Cusano said, the commission considers the arts "the fabric of life."
Throughout his talk, Cusano repeated the phrase, "a seat at the table." This means that arts and culture should be considered in all decisions affecting the general welfare of a community, especially a city's economic development. An artistic voice should be heard when major decisions are made, not as an afterthought when it's too late.
In addition to having "a seat at the table," artists and anyone involved in the community's culture should work toward building a network within the community. Cusano stressed the importance of building relationships "across industries."
He suggested the Advisory Commission on the Arts and Culture conduct a community assessment, which is an inventory of the number of artists, cultural organizations and events in Norwalk. This assessment would involved gathering information to assess the community's needs in terms of the arts and culture. Once the community assessment is completed, then a cultural plan should be drawn.
Should Norwalk create a local arts agency, such as a non-profit arts council? Should it establish an arts center? As Cusano knows from experience, municipalities like Norwalk have a long resume of forming some semblance of an arts organization, such as a council. Then, someone gets power hungry or political. Others "fall asleep and you have a mess," he said.
He suggested that the current group, that consists of members of the city's advisory commission, which is headed by Becki Christopherson, who locally runs the Susuki School, and others invited city officials, the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and representatives of local cultural, artistic and educational organizations to future discussions.
When Christoherson mentioned that a real estate developer expressed interest in a venture that he envisioned would have office condos, performance space, an arts center and café, Cusano said "The more we have conversations about special interests, the more people will be turned off." He wanted to hear about plans that would help everyone. "It's not about the site; it's about the people in the relationship," he said.
Seeing John Cusano again, after many, many years reminded me of the relationships we all had back in the early 80s when - of course - we were all 25 years younger. We were full of hope, inspiration and aspirations for what could be happening here in Norwalk. Of course, since then, lots have happened. There is no doubt. But we still come together in little groups, still trying to connect within the group and with the other groups doing their thing in another part of the city.
Cusano cited Northwest Connecticut Arts Council, which serves 23 towns, as an example of what some people are doing in the state when it comes to the arts and culture. It's website is www.artsnwct.org. Check it out.
© Copyright 2006 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.