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Cultural Alliance Ace Awards Brings Together Creative Changemakers, Legislators, Philanthropists And A Broadway Star

The ACE awards recognize individuals, organizations, and businesses, that have made a significant on Fairfield County.

Cultural Alliance Ace Awards Brings Together Creative Changemakers, Legislators, Philanthropists And A Broadway Star

Close to 200 participants gathered Wed. June 15 at the Shore and Country Club, Norwalk, to celebrate the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County's 6th Daniel E Offutt III Arts & Cultural Empowerment (ACE) awardees. The ACE awards recognize individuals, organizations, and businesses, that have made a significant on Fairfield County.

This was the first ACE Awards breakfast in three years, due to COVID, and President Cheryl Williams made the point that the pandemic had drawn members of the Cultural Alliance closer together, realizing how much they depended upon, and learned from, each other in the darkest days of COVID.

Executive Director David Green commented: "What was most inspiring today was to see the mix of artists, cultural nonprofits, legislators, business leaders and many others gathered together for the same purpose - celebrating the awardees and the power of the arts and culture to sustain and uplift the community in good times and challenging times. Resilience was the theme of the day, but it was joyful resilience - celebrating the human spirit and the solid contributions of all creative changemakers."

Another theme of the breakfast was how legislators and state officials came to realize the economic importance of arts, culture and tourism to the state's economy - and how much active support and investment the sector needed during the critical days of COVID.

DECD Commissioner David Lehman, as keynote speaker, testified how much he learned about the economic impact of the arts during this period, largely through continuous consultations with Elizabeth Shapiro, head of the CT Office of the Arts and Jason Mancini, head of Connecticut Humanities - both of whom also spoke. "We understand how a diversity of voices leads to creative and dynamic problem solving, whether it be building new bridges to justice-impacted teens or providing mentoring and support networks."

Lehman reported the arts alone contributed $10 billion (3.5%) to Connecticut's economy in 2020, but came to understand that numbers were not enough of a measure. Working with Shapiro and Mancini had taught him about other ways the arts impacted CT residents: as a tool for healing; creating spaces for nuanced conversations about complex issues; bringing virtual classes and performances to those isolated during COVID; and as a bridge to having conversations about inequity and injustice.

Elizabeth Shapiro in her remarks also spoke to this issue: "The arts have been at the heart of our survival over the last 2 years - we know that. We know it in our hearts, we know it in our heads, by looking at statistics and by talking to people: 'What was really important?' - creating and participating in the arts."

Jason Mancini spoke to how he and Shapiro had worked with Lehman and with legislators to begin a remake of how the state's cultural infrastructure is funded. He was grateful to the governor and legislators for their investment in the CT Cultural Fund - a two-year investment that so far has funded 146 cultural organizations in Fairfield County to the tune of $4.5 million.

Artist awardee Alicia Cobb spoke of her gratitude not only to her family but also for those ancestors "not allowed to be artists or lawyers or doctors or writers." For her, "art changed my life. It allowed me to be who I was, authentically, without question."

Citizen awardee William Felton shared why he gives to the arts. He spoke of the impact of the speech by former SEC Chair Arthur Levitt at the very first ACE Awards, in which he stressed the critical value to the community of giving back. That speech escalated Felton's involvement in what is now MoCA Westport, and he urged the audience to give what they could of their "precious time and financial support." "Life's pleasures are measured in many different ways, but I assure you giving to local organizations will not only be greatly appreciated by them but it will be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do. I believe our commitment to the community has been a game-changer - and it will only get better as we continue."

Steven Wooters, representing Corporate Awardee Fairfield County Bank, stressed that the Bank had worked for over 150 years supporting the arts, culture and other community groups. Not only was the Bank supporting 350 charities with a million dollars a year, but also some 300 of its employees log about 4,000 hours volunteering for nonprofits.
Educator awardee Pam Lewis opened her thanks with a song, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest till it comes." She said the two key approaches for her organization were playing and performing. "Playing and performing together helps people break down barriers, build trust and take risks together. We can then try new things and see new possibilities for ourselves and our communities." This approach, she said, brings joy and happiness -a radical act. "It does seem like a radical act in these days too often marked with devastating news... These problems are immense and it can feel difficult to believe that anything we can do can make a difference. But we can make a difference, by creating joy and happiness together - and at Connect-Us we do this in big and small ways."
The Nonprofit awardee City Lights and its executive director Suzanne Kachmar affirmed her dependence on, and commitment, to artists - true collaborators in all that they do. City Lights helped move $150,000+ to artists last year, in the form of work sales, referrals, commissions and grant writing. She acknowledged that her work would not be possible without "the intervention and the hard work of the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, the Connecticut Office of the Arts and Connecticut Humanities, because you were that force and conduit that got us American Rescue Plan funds."

The President's Award (not made every year) was made posthumously to Alexandra Korry, founder of The Norwalk Art Space, and her husband Robin Panovka accepted the award. She, he said, would have been in total accord with the tenor of the morning's meeting, with her belief that nothing great was achieved without passion. "The basic idea for The Norwalk Art Space is to give artists free studio space, free exhibition space, and in exchange ask them to teach kids tuition free. So everything is free, everyone is welcome, and the goal is to try to close what Alexander was passionate about closing, which is the opportunity and equity gap, particularly for kids."

Award winning actor James Naughton was the entertaining MC for the event. He closed the ceremony by declaring how inspiring it was to be in the room with so many creative people. He spoke of his family, most of whom work in theatre, and, so inspired was he by Pam Lewis, he ended his several pleas for financial support for the arts during the event by breaking into song - Lou Carter's "If I Had a Nose Full of Nickels."

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