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Where Are They Now, Part 1: Farmington Valley Arts Center

Our promise is to use the arts to “improve lives and transform communities.” A few years ago, we created the Arts Catalyst program, which provides small arts and culture organizations resources that support growth and innovation. In the “Where Are They Now?” series, we’ll revisit each community arts center that completed the first Cohort of our Arts Catalyst program, where they worked with an organizational development consultant and a Business Volunteer for the Arts. The first post takes a look at how the Farmington Valley Arts Center found a way forward after the devastating recession in 2008 and what they’ve been able to do with the Arts Catalyst resources.

There’s nothing like a fresh start, and the Farmington Valley Arts Center has seen many changes since it started over 40 years ago. This former Ensign-Bickford fuse factory nestled in bucolic Avon is no stranger to transition. Started by a local clergyman in 1974, the Arts Center had been providing programs, classes, studio space, and a children’s summer camp until 2008 when the economy crashed. After closing for just one day, the Board of Directors had a chance to refocus. A new Board President was appointed to tackle the significant financial issues, and to put the FVAC back on the path to financial stability. Their “Rebuilding” phase included expanding their studio rentals, re-imagining their education program, relocating and refreshing their retail space, producing more exhibits, and adding  or revitalizing existing programs  such as an Artist-in-Residence  program, Art Parties and Art Hikes. They were also looking to take advantage of other funding opportunities, so they were excited to find out they had gotten in to the Arts Catalyst cohort in 2016.

As important as it is to start a project with this sort of breadth and depth with an open mind, it is completely normal to have some nerves and hesitancy, but Board member Linda Sorrell was ready to put all of the aforementioned ideas into action. “The innovation goal workshop really helped us crystallize things that we had been thinking about,” Sorrell said. “Going into the workshop, what became very apparent was that we had some really pretty good offerings and quite decent infrastructure in place. What we didn’t have was a way of marketing it.” Sorrell is referring to a strategic document that had been produced back in 2012, but a lot of the content had not been operationalized for various reasons. The innovation workshop guided Cohort 1 through an organizational analysis, vision development, and action planning exercises to help participants realize potential growth. Sorrell’s takeaway from the innovation goal workshop was the beginning of a marketing plan to operationalize their former strategic planning document.

“Working on innovation goals, it became clear that to do anything else, we had to get a particular message out there and start to address the audience, not only the audience we had at the moment, but to increase and diversify that audience pretty significantly.” Sorrell and the Board wished to grow the audience from a mostly homogenous group into different populations with varied interests. This is where the Business Volunteers for the Arts played a significant role. “[The] BVA partners were phenomenal…they understood social media in a way the FVAC board and volunteers did not…[they] put out surveys and collected a lot of data.” FVAC’s experience with the innovation goal workshop combined with findings generated by their BVA partners culminated in four distinct yet interwoven areas of potential growth: Visibility, Excitement, Community, and Sustainability.

Over the summer, the arts center hosted the first Funnybone Records showcase, an evening of music and poetry performed by artists associated with the West Hartford-based label of the same name. As part of their recently expanded clay program, they developed a series of “clay date nights” through Groupon that reached a new demographic and volume of people they hadn’t seen. “If we can get people back here once, we can get them a second and a third…we can start to understand what kinds of events will draw people in,” said Sorrell.

In conclusion, the Farmington Valley Arts Center participants had an overwhelmingly positive experience in the first Arts Catalyst cohort, and look forward to being able to produce more consistent offerings. Be on the lookout for our next “Where Are They Now” post, where we learn how the Windsor Art Center fared in their Cohort 1 experience!

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