There is a lot to be said about being at the right place at the right time, and that’s exactly where artist Mary DeCroce was in 2016. DeCroce, now Executive Director of Southington Community Cultural Arts (SoCCA), along with a core group of fellow artists and colleagues had just ended a $1.2 million capital campaign to open Southington’s first community arts center. They heard about the Arts Catalyst program, and immediately saw the potential in how the new center, staff, volunteers, and already growing student population could benefit.
Before 2016, the art center was more nebulous: There were 10 people total, including assistants, who met every Saturday morning at the local branch of The Arc, an advocacy and human services organization. They started the program with a grant from the Barnes Trust through the Main Street Community Foundation. As soon as they opened in the historic Gura Building at 93 Main St, their student number tripled in size. Now entering their third year, SoCCA is made up of four rented studio spaces, a gallery, retail shop, an administrative office, weaving room, pottery studio, and several classrooms.
“I recognized that Southington, with 43,000 people, did not have a place for the arts. There were just a couple places to exhibit, there wasn’t adequate teaching space,” recalled DeCroce of the local arts and culture landscape. “I was pleading as an artist, ‘let’s have a space’” She used every platform she could to advocate for an arts center. As a winner of the Unsung Hero award at the YMCA, she was invited to give a 10-minute speech and remembers emphasizing, “we have to make room for the arts here, we have to have this in our town.” The speech was short and sweet, but it was also passionate. It was in the following Spring, when the Town Council was voting to demolish the Gura Building, that Town Council member Dawn Miceli reached out to DeCroce, expressing her support for the cause.
“Helping provide a home for the arts in our community has truly been the most rewarding initiative that I’ve been involved with during my tenure on the Southington Town Council. But beyond our beautiful physical space, SoCCA has just been a wonderful impetus for bringing an awareness of both the visual and performing arts – and their inherent benefits – to our citizens,” said Miceli, who currently serves as a trustee emeritus on the SoCCA board.
The arts center wouldn’t be where it is today without the Arts Catalyst program, according to DeCroce. In preparation for the innovation goal workshop, she brought in a few board members to help take SoCCA to the next level. “We needed to know how to run an arts center. How do we make this a working arts center when none of us had done anything like this in our life?” The innovation goal workshop, where they had the opportunity to learn from other cohort leaders’ experience running their respective arts center, was just the beginning.
DeCroce and the board then worked with a Business Volunteer for the Arts, who also happened to be a native of Southington. Wendy Ronitz-Baker, Principal Coach at Practical Results Coaching, worked with DeCroce on “every single facet” of starting a business as an arts center. Together, they laid out what would become the responsibilities as Executive Director: Public Relations, Program Oversight, Grant Administration, Board Liaison, Human Resources Management, Event Coordination, Building Maintenance, and Cash Management. There are even more duties that fall under her watch for now, until they hire an Assistant Director. Ronitz-Baker helped immensely with details and logistics which helped DeCroce focus on strategy and big picture, which is where they’re headed next. Ronitz-Baker recently led the SoCCA board retreat, enabling her to see the fruits of her labor and how far the organization has come.
So, where is SoCCA now? They have a massive underground pottery studio that holds six classes a week (with a waiting list). They run their signature All-Access program with 70 weekly class visits for students with disabilities. They host exhibits, performances, and other events. Now, DeCroce’s goal is keeping SoCCA vibrant. “We are now recognized in this short amount of time as a resource,” she said. By connecting with the Department of Developmental Services, their students come as far as Thomaston, Torrington, Waterbury, and Watertown. DeCroce beamed as she gave an example of SoCCA’s impact. “There’s a wonderful energy of creativity. [Our students] are so supportive of each other; they are so fun to work with.”
“The dream of having a space for the arts for all abilities and ages is now a reality and we are working hard to keep it successful and vibrant.”
SoCCA’s impact has been felt on many levels – the personal, communal, and municipal. “As an elected official, I am also grateful for the economic stimulus that the arts have had in our community. SoCCA has been a destination location for Southington and is now critically weaved into the fabric of our town – similar in nature to the Southington Drive-In, Mount Southington and so many other community gems,” said Miceli. In addition to keeping the center vibrant, DeCroce is shifting her focus to sustainability. They’ve been participating in a series of capacity-building workshops at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, where she found out the center has been doing quite well considering its age. “We have grown rapidly in our first 2 years and are using every resource we have to keep the momentum of becoming one of the premier art centers in Connecticut. The dream of having a space for the arts for all abilities and ages is now a reality and we are working hard to keep it successful and vibrant.”