Sleuthing Around the Mark Twain House & Museum's Get A Clue! Tour

“But I’ve already been there once already. Why would I need to go again?”

Subverting this common visitor sentiment is one of the major challenges that cultural organizations like the Mark Twain House & Museum face everyday. Luckily, through frequent and unique programming, the Twain House expands the possibilities presented by Twain’s home and literature in exciting and engaging ways that mix entertainment and culture seamlessly. For instance, last Thursday (Mar 22), I attended the Get A Clue! Tour, where I had the opportunity to harness my inner detective in a live-action version of CLUE with Sea Tea Improv throughout the Twain House.

Brushing the cobwebs off my finest pipe, I grabbed my friend Amanda (with a surprise cameo by the fiery Susan Williams, the Arts Council’s Welcome Center Coordinator) and prepared to unravel the mystery of who killed “Pap” Finn in hilarious and glorious fashion. The Twain House, like the stately home in the game CLUE, has a Conservatory, a Dining Room, a Library and even a few secret passages. The tour, however, would deviate from characters like Colonel Mustard (my favorite) and Miss Scarlet and replace them with classic Twain characters like Huck Finn and the Connecticut Yankee – all brought to life by on-the-spot comedy extraordinaires from Sea Tea Improv.

As the tour began, the guide handed out sheets the resembled the standard CLUE check-off list, which included three separate categories to determine the murderer, the murder weapon and the murder room. At that point, he explained that by asking questions, each character would be able to eliminate two options from our check-off list, as well as provide a good sassing to guests. Suspicious of where his loyalties rested, I subtly etched the tour guide’s name at the top of my suspect’s list, although he assured me that wasn’t possible…exactly what the murderer would say.

Horrific shrieks of betrayal and death greeted us as we entered the dark and ominous Twain House as the tour began. Our tour guide first wisped us to the kitchen, where we were heartily greeted by the drunken Muff Potter. As he stumbled his way to support himself and to our questions, it soon became clear that the audience was a vital part of the show like any improv performance. As such, Amanda and I played along by mixing snarky one liners with real questions. For instance, after a long tirade about her purity and virtue, Amanda and I accused Becky Thatcher of committing “the dirty deed (the murder, obviously!) in the bedroom.” Her sharp return suggested she wasn’t very happy with our insinuations, but I think Mark Twain would have given us at least a head nod for slightly clever wordplay.

By the end of the evening, Amanda and I had more fun sassing than we did taking notes, so we ended up with the wrong murder weapon and murder room during the time of accusation. But, the true victor for the evening should be awarded to the Twain House for a clever and interactive event that anyone from a first time visitor to a Twain House frequenter could have enjoyed. Although I’m no Sherlock Holmes, I know an artsy night out’s been well spent when I can answer the question, “Would you do it again?” with the word

Indubitably.

Voices in the Garden

Undersized jeans, a bowl haircut, the screech and horror of pubescent voice change – reflecting on my middle school experience often makes me shrug and sigh. Above all, I remember struggling to be comfortable in my own skin; to determine and assert the essence of. . .well, me.

That’s why I was blown away yesterday as I traveled to R. J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts in Hartford to photograph Voices in the Garden for our 2012 United Arts Campaign, take pART!, with Roger Castonguay, our usual and amazing photographer from The Defining Photo.

In partnership with the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Kinsella’s Voices in the Garden encourages students between the 5th and 8th grades to take popular music, transfuse it with personal stories and then bring those stories and songs to life with movement and dance.

“[The students] write the stories,” said Suzi Jensen, an Instructor from Judy Dworin, “to give the garden a voice [in] all forms of expression.”

As Roger, bubbly and charismatic as always, scrambled with white umbrellas to better illuminate the small gym and snap photos of each lyric, handstand and clap, I stood with my back to the blue padded back wall and watched the students’ repertoire. Each performance, regardless if it captured the exuberance of youth or the more somber realities of growing up, ultimately gave voice to “the garden,” or, abstractly in my eyes, the intangible, ever-evolving location that possesses the collective emotional experience of the group’s tales.

“[The students] don’t shy away from personal stories,” stressed Mellissa Craig, another Instructor from Judy Dworin, “they learn to trust each other.”

I discovered this dearth of shyness firsthand as I was forcibly thrust from being a fly on the wall in a lull between performances. Unlike my timid self in middle school, the students I met were comfortable coming right up to me and firing off questions ranging from how old I was to why I had a tie on. When I had the chance to get a word in, I asked them to describe what the program meant to them in one word. From responses like “freedom,” “energy,” and “self-expression,” I couldn’t help but be moved by the fact that this environment fostered each student to be entirely without reservation or shame regardless of who was around.

Perhaps the moment where I most felt this awe was when one student stepped in front of her peers to sing a song she had created with some friends. During the song, she encouraged the audience to chant, “Don’t let it stop you, girl. Don’t let it stop you” whenever she raised her hand. As she began belting out the soulful chorus, her hand reached for the sky followed by the sounds of each student echoing her empowering line back to her. And that’s a message we all can relate to everyday, regardless of age, position in life, whatever.

“Don’t let it stop you, girl. Don’t let it stop you.”

Spotlight! on the Arts

Cathy was the guest on yesterday’s “Spotlight” radio program, a show devoted to the arts and entertainment in Connecticut. Host Ginny Wolf gives an excellent run-down of upcoming arts and cultural events, and the two spend the rest of the half-hour segment discussing Cathy’s vision for the Arts Council and some new ideas for the Greater Hartford arts community.

Download the interview audio file.

Learn more about Spotlight and host Ginny Wolf.

An iQuilt Kind of Week

With civic projects, sometimes when it rains it pours, and iQuilt is no exception. For some reason there has been a lot of iQuilt-related-buzz this week—from photoshoots and presentations to the first, exciting glimpse at what’s to come.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the name “iQuilt,” the iQuilt Plan is a new culture based urban design project for the City of Hartford. Basically, iQuilt aims to link downtown Hartford’s cultural assets—theatres, museums, landmarks and parks—with a “greenwalk” of open spaces from the riverfront to the Capitol across Bushnell Park. The goal is to make the city more vibrant, accessible and walkable and to provide a visual “language” to make the city easy to understand and less intimidating to visitors. The name iQuilt comes from the project’s “patchwork quality,” linking together various cultural desinations into a city-wide quilt.

Originally proposed by the Bushnell as a way to connect the performing arts center with the rest of downtown, the plan has grown to include projects designed to spur housing and retail development, expand and restore water features to historic Bushnell Park and reimagine Main Street as a lively, active and walkable destination. The City, the State, the Arts Council, the MetroHartford Alliance, Riverfront Recapture and a number of other organizations all have a hand in making the project a success. Will Wilkins, Executive Director of Real Art Ways probably puts it best when he says, “it’s not that there’s nothing to do in Hartford—it’s that there’s no where to do nothing”‘; iQuilt follows the models of other successful urban planning projects that make cities more open, creative places to gather.

Photo shoot with iQuilt Partners

On Tuesday, I sat in on the Business Improvement District’s quarterly board meeting and had the pleasure of meeting Doug Suisman, master urban planner and Hartford native who’s been hired to design and manage the iQuilt plan. He gave a wonderful, dynamic presentation about what’s been achieved so far and what we can expect in the months and years to come—to be honest, I’ve heard the presentation a few times before, but it never disappoints. It’s hard not to be excited when seeing the sketches and renderings the planned river in Bushnell Park, or see the soon-to-come Bushnell Gardens expansion or imagine Hartford’s streets on a new “road diet” designed to make them more walkable (and bike-able). If you want to know more, make sure you visit iQuilt’s web site and download the 120-page plan overview. Warning: it’s a big file, but well worth the read.

After I got back to the office, Cathy and I dashed over to an impromptu photo shoot with some of iQuilt’s biggest partners: the Mayor, representatives from the Bushnell, the Wadsworth and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

iQuilt signs on the corner of Trumbull & Asylum Streets.

Then, I got word through Dwelling in Downtown’s Facebook group that we’d get to see the first, physical “instllation” of the iQuilt plan on Wednesday, March 7—a directional signpost affixed to the back of the walk signals on the corner of Trumbull and Asylum Streets. It’s a really cool use of exsisting dead space, and I love the idea of listing the walking minutes to each destination inside the directional arrows. Smart. Really smart. (Also: excuse my crappy iPhone pics).

iQuilt is an evolving project, so news comes out in dribbles and spurts. But stay tuned for an upcoming announcement about a large-scale community event this fall where you can see—and experience for yourselves—the exciting future of iQuilt.

Mas Camp 2011: A Jobs Grant Success Story

This year, we’re trying to find new ways to connect our donors with the wonderful work they support in our community. I’ll be publishing this “success stories” from our grantees from time to time on this blog. And here’s a great one from last year’s Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Program:

How the Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant uses the arts to boost our local economy
In 2009, the Greater Hartford Arts Council partnered with the City of Hartford to administer the Hartford Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program, a new initiative designed to fund cultural programs and projects that create or retain jobs, drive economic activity and welcome audiences from outside the City. Since its inception, the jobs grant program has retained more than 30 jobs, created more than 200 temporary positions, invested more than $2.5 million in local businesses and received national attention as a successful model for using the arts to affect urban change. Your contributions to United Arts make possible the administration of the Jobs Grant program, which supports the valuable work of our arts and heritage organizations and makes a real impact on our local economy.

Fixing a costume headpiece

The Institute for Community Research’s Mas Camp Youth Employment Program is a perfect example of the tremendous success of Jobs Grant funding. Mas Camp had two simple goals: to teach the rich cultural history and traditions of the Caribbean community to teenagers in Hartford’s North End—a neighborhood steeped in artistic heritage—while hiring local educators and artists to create Carnival-style costumes for performers at Hartford’s Caribbean festivals and celebrations. Using a tried-and-true apprenticeship and mentorship model, experienced craftsman would spend the summer teaching students how to create authentic Caribbean costumes, keeping their cultural traditions alive across generations.

The energy at Mas Camp was electric. Housed in a make-shift workshop behind a North End row house, 15 teenage girls spent hours learning the artistic disciplines of their ancestors by hand as they constructed colorful gowns, sewed sequined headdresses and created larger-than-life costume spectacles. All the supplies were purchased from Hartford vendors. The finished pieces were loaned to Hartford’s Brazilian, Hooker and Columbus Day Parades and the popular West Indian and Caribbean Jerk festivals, saving other arts organizations from the costly expense of renting costumes on their own.

Students in finished costumes.

On paper, the ICR’s Mas Camp program was wildly successful: 5 temporary jobs and 15 youth employment positions were created, nearly $8,000 was invested at Hartford businesses and more than 5,000 people had the chance to see these exquisite costumes on display. But more important is the indefinable impact of these Jobs Grant-funded programs: thanks to your investment, the girls and their instructors could proudly watch as professional dancers performed in their dazzling, one-of-a-kind creations, entrancing audiences and celebrating the unique diversity of our community.

Mayor Segarra Named Chair of 2012 Campaign

Mayor Pedro Segarra and Arts Council CEO Cathy Malloy

We’re pleased to announce the Chair of our 2012 United Arts Campaign: Pedro E. Segarra, the Mayor of the City of Hartford!

Read the official 2012 United Arts Campaign Announcement.

Mayor Segarra understands the important role the arts play in building a rich, vibrant community. Under his tenure, the Mayor created the Hartford Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program to fund arts and heritage projects that retain and create jobs, drive economic activity and welcome visitors to Hartford. We are so excited to pARTner with Mayor Segarra to make this campaign a huge success—reaching our $3.2 million fundraising goal means another year of world-class artistic programming that makes our region unique and enlivens, entertains and uplifts us all.

Check Your Mail

You might see one of these letters arrive in your mailbox over the next few weeks. Typically we spend the winter writing, designing and sending thousands of letters to our supporters and arts enthusiasts in the community asking them to make an early gift to help us jump-start the United Arts Campaign and build some excitement for the spring. Our staff works incredibly hard to get to know our donors to personalize the act and show them the impact of their gifts.

Something NEW this year: we’re also including case studies (with photos!) from our 2011 grant programs so you can see the immediate and long-lasting effecs of your donation. We promise to do a better job of connecting our donors with the work they support, and I’ll be publishing these “success stories” on this blog throughout the year.

Art Makes Cents: 2012 Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Awards

Yesterday, Cathy joined Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra at the Isham-Terry House, a historic property on the edge of Hartford’s North End, to announce the recipients of the 2012 Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Program, a grant initiative funded by the City of Hartford and managed by the Arts Council.

Let’s back up a bit. First, about the Jobs Grant Program: each year since 2009, the city has invested money from its budget to fund arts and heritage programming and projects that generate or retain jobs, support local business and drive economic activity. Hartford’s Jobs Grant Program has received national recognition as a leading model for using the arts to stimulate the local economy. Funded programs must fall in one of three categories: facility improvements, youth employment and new or expanded programs.

This year’s recipients represent a wide array of different projects from all across the city. Connecticut Landmarks, a historical preservation organization, received funding to renovate the Isham-Terry House, a historic home that’s been left derelict for years. With Jobs Grant money, they hope to restore and re-open the house in the summer and, eventually, hire part-time interpreters and tour guides, welcoming thousands of new visitors from around New England.

Cathy, the mayor and Sheryl Hack, Executive Director of Connecticut Landmarks, took a tour of the house-in-progress. The heat hasn’t been installed yet so it was a bit chilly inside—a good 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the unseasonably warm 58 degrees outside—and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the house itself is in remarkably good condition. With a new paint job and soon-to-be-cleaned carpets, the house is already starting to look brand-new—even though it’s almost 160 years old.

Thanks to Connecticut Landmarks for hosting the announcement event and for giving us a special behind-the-scenes tour of the home. For more information about the event, read the news release and see the list of 2012 recipients. Especially exciting are the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s CityMusic program, HartBeat Ensemble’s Art in the Park event and Real ArtWay’s new “Art & Science” exhibit.

Want even more coverage? Read Frank Rizzo’s Hartford Courant articles on the media event and the grant awards.

All photos by Roger Castonguay of The Defining Photo.

Behind-the-Scenes: Hartford Magazine

Our CEO, Cathy Malloy, will appear in the “Players” section of the April issue of Hartford magazine. “Players” features photos of local leaders and celebrities—next month it’s leaders in the arts—along with stories about the work they do in the community.

I snapped a few of these behind-the-scenes photos of Cathy’s photoshoot on Friday. Make sure you check local newsstands for the leaders in the arts “Players” spread in a couple of weeks.