BRISTOL - The potential rebirth of the old Memorial Boulevard School as a community cultural center and arts magnet school has become the focus of efforts to rebrand Bristol as an arts-oriented destination.
After the school closed in 2012 and the Memorial Boulevard Task Force formed to decide the building’s future, there was “a huge outpouring of support” for its efforts, said Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu.
Many meetings had 50 or more people who cared about arts and culture, theater, performance space, she said. It ignited the idea that “we should have something more than just a task force, more than just a group fighting for another stage.”
Greg Hahn, who Zoppo-Sassu said originally came to the task force meetings as a representative of the Bristol Brass and Wind Ensemble, got the idea to run for City Council with arts and culture as part of his platform.
After she and Hahn were elected last November, they kicked off the drive to establish a permanent arts commission for the city. She said the council could be able to name the members by this spring, and they would have some seed money to plan “some signature events or fold arts, culture, and music components into existing events.”
As the home of ESPN, Muzzy Field and the Bristol Blues, Bristol has a reputation as a sports-loving city. However, Zoppo-Sassu said the arts have always been part of the city’s history, from the OM Show celebrating its 77th anniversary this year to the city’s past reputation as an entertainment destination.
Before the urban renewal of the 1960s and the era when people stayed home to watch TV, in the 1940s and 50s downtown had theaters and restaurants so people would come in for dinner and a show, she said.
There have been other theater arts projects over the years, she said. “They disbanded. They didn’t have a place to go, school fees tend to be high, music copyrights tend to be high. Now anybody from Bristol who is interested in theater arts goes to New Britain.”
“But I do think that we have the audience and the foundation for it,” she added.
Zoppo-Sassu said there have been efforts in the recent past, such as an ad hoc group that worked under Mayor Frank Nicastro that put on some quilt shows and music performances.
“Then when I was on the council my first go around, during Mayor Gerard Couture’s administration which was 2003 to 2005, we had what was called the TEAM - Tourism Entertainment Arts Museums,” she said. “We produced a printed calendar that was available in bank lobbies and at events. We gave mini-grants out to 501c3 groups. It launched the museums working together as a collaborative group, leveraging resources to increase attendance.”
Memorial Boulevard, with its theater and gateway location, has jump started these types of efforts now.
Even people who would come out to council hearings and rail against spending money to develop downtown would speak out to save the school and the theater, Zoppo-Sassu said.
“There are so many people committed to the arts in this town,” she said. “They just needed a forum. The Memorial Boulevard Task Force ran test shows to see if there was an audience and whether people would pay to come to the Memorial Boulevard.”
The task force staged a series of shows in the spring of 2015, that included a Queen tribute act, the Yale University Whiffenpoofs, the Bristol Brass and Wind Ensemble, and a Beatlemania concert.
“They were all wildly successful,” she said. “The place was filled every time.”
The goal of the new arts commission is “to create a more arts-friendly community that will in turn stimulate our local economy,” said Lindsay Vigue, photographer and task force member, at a recent meeting. “It would be much more enriching to our community if organizations and businesses had a simpler path to put up murals and sculptures.”
Vigue cited obstacles a former city art group faced a couple of years ago when the members wanted to paint traffic boxes, and said existing city ordinances and procedures should be altered in order to create a simpler path for public art.
The commission also could be the liaison between artist, the city, businesses, and organizations to help projects come to fruition, she said, noting there are vacant buildings in the city that could be used for artists’ studios.
Another task force member, Rich Theriault, recommended the commission have a music liaison that maintains contact with local musicians, schools, and private music teachers, and helps create and coordinate events with them at local venues.
Since Memorial Boulevard closed city officials have been working on transforming the school’s 750-seat theater into a community arts center. The Board of Finance has approved bonding $54.8 million to renovate the entire landmark building, which the school district would like to revive as an arts magnet school for grades six through 12. The state is expected to reimburse roughly 65 percent of the cost.
Last fall school officials joined Konstantine Diamantes, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services, and representatives of the State Department of Education for a tour of the school.
“We brought them into the theater first, where they were thrilled,” Superintendent Susan Moreau said then. “They could not believe that a theater like this still existed, particularly with the balcony and mezzanine sections.”
The educational specifications approved by the Board of Education for the proposed Memorial Boulevard Intradistrict Magnet Arts School said the arts magnet concept may be defined as a place “where students draw, paint, sing, dance, play a musical instrument, and act in a play.”
However “there is so much more,” according to the document. “Students will use authentic mathematical and science skills to design and create sets, English language arts to create speeches, scripts, and other creative writing, organizational skills necessary for directing and producing vignettes and larger scale productions, and create works of art inspired by the historic tradition of the school in which they are learning.”
“Learning how to utilize sound and lighting systems, creating and editing digital media and communication of this learning in multiple formats will assist these students in gaining access to post-secondary educational opportunities in their home town,” it continues.
The magnet arts school “will provide cultural immersion for the students who attend the school and a venue for performance groups from within and outside of the Bristol community to share these spaces for the benefit of all Bristol citizens,” reads the project rationale for the specifications.
The document describes how the school is listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places, “located at the gateway to the Bristol downtown area,” and that its theater could become “a preferred cultural destination for residents and attract guests from other towns to Bristol, strengthening its economic vitality.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.