Mike Stotts, Managing Director of Hartford Stage, spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how the arts contribute to Hartford’s economic growth and sense of community.

NAN PRICE: Explain the importance of the arts in Hartford and the role they play in the community.

MIKE STOTTS: One of strengths of the City of Hartford is its cultural assets. However, I think the arts are often underestimated in terms of what our contributions are to not only the economic vitality of the community, but also what we provide for the community in terms of social and educational impact.

The arts contribute enormously to Hartford—not just Hartford Stage, but the Wadsworth Atheneum, the other theaters, and all of the historical homes in the area. These cultural attractions are one of the main draws for people coming to participate in Hartford events and wanting to live here in the city. There can be a larger platform for the arts to really be a catalyst for change here.

NAN: And how is Hartford Stage contributing to that?

MIKE: Over the last five years, we have put an enormous amount of investment into our productions. In terms of innovation—we are trying to utilize the latest technologies available in the theatrical world to be able to keep up with the times, but also to give Hartford audiences truly extraordinary experiences when they attend the theater.

The work we’re doing has resulted in some of our shows being recognized and produced in New York and elsewhere in the country. So there’s been an acknowledgement that Hartford Stage is indeed doing some wonderful things here. We also know it from the increase in our ticket sales and our subscriber base, and from the amount of buzz we’ve created over the last couple of years.

NAN: Along those lines, how are the arts are contributing to Hartford’s economic growth and development?

MIKE: With regard to Hartford Stage, we’ve grown our subscriber base by 30% over the last five years. Last year we almost doubled our single ticket buyers. So that contributes to everything in the Greater Hartford area—including hotel stays, restaurants, and parking.

The budget for Anastasia, the new musical we premiered last spring, was substantial. A significant part of it went right back into the city of Hartford or into the state of Connecticut through the materials that were bought, the fees paid to various artists and crafts people, and the hotels and apartments we had to rent to accommodate all of the people working on that production. That’s just one example of how the arts contribute economically.

When people come to the downtown area, whether it’s the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts or TheatreWorks, we are stimulating a lot of additional economic growth. The theaters are open approximately 260 nights a year. When we’re full, the restaurants are full.

NAN: Tell us about your involvement with Billings Forge Community Works.

MIKE: I joined that board four years ago. I was looking for something else to do in the community and I wanted to participate in a different way in terms of helping out the city of Hartford.

Billings Forge Community Works had a lot of different elements that interested me—what it was doing for the residents of Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, its mission surrounding access to healthy food and promoting the culinary arts—all of those things contributed to my desire to get involved with the organization.

NAN: You’re also involved with the Connecticut Arts Alliance, which you co-founded.

MIKE: I’m still on the board. The organization has gone through many iterations over a long period of time. Around 2004, a couple of other folks and I got together to reorganize and reestablish it. Since then it’s evolved quite a bit.

The purpose of the Connecticut Arts Alliance is to serve as an advocacy organization for the arts in Connecticut. One of the fundamental challenges with the arts in our state is how they’re funded. There are several organizations that receive line-item appropriations, and others that receive grants through a competitive grant making process. Our goal is to increase the overall amount of funds that go to the arts and more equitably distribute them.

NAN: What inspires you?

MIKE: I think that the work ultimately is what propels all of us in the arts. We aspire to do great theater and produce great art. I think that is certainly the driving force for me and I believe most of my colleagues at Hartford Stage.

It’s also very gratifying to be creating programs and producing plays that are achieving wide acclaim locally and across the country, and are actually having an impact on our community.

Hartford Stage has amazing education programs and we have grown them exponentially in the last 10 years. We are now serving more than 20,000 students a year with a variety of programs that not only bring students to the theater to see our work, but have us in the classroom working with teachers and students.

In a community that has challenges in its education system, I feel very strongly that Hartford Stage and the rest of the arts community should be doing what it can to contribute to some of the solutions. I firmly believe that the arts are going to help kids become better learners. It’s going to help with their comprehension skills—whether or not they end up pursuing something in the arts, they will have more tools to work with in whatever career paths they choose.

NAN: Are these programs just in Hartford or are they offered throughout Connecticut?

MIKE: We’re throughout Connecticut, mostly in the Greater Hartford area, but we do have programs that reach all corners of the state.

NAN: You mentioned innovation earlier. How is Hartford Stage working to be innovative?

MIKE: Hartford Stage tries to keep up with the times in terms of how we innovate our front-of-house experience. We’ve gone through several years of renovating the theater, making substantial improvements that make attending the theatre a more enjoyable experience. We are now re-innovating our community engagement programs so there’s a greater dialogue and conversation between various constituents in our community about the themes of the plays as we are producing.

For example, we partnered with several veteran organizations last year when we did a play called The Body of an American and did so again this year with a play called Queens for a Year, which is about four generations of women in the military. We also created a wonderful program last season in conjunction with our production of Having Our Say, called “Having Their Say,” which was about capturing the stories of 10 African-American women who have contributed vitally to our community.

So we’re trying to find ways to really make the theater accessible to everyone in our community and feel like they own a little piece of what Hartford Stage is.

NAN: I like that. It’s a great concept.

MIKE: The performing arts across the country are in a very challenging period right now with declining audiences, and rapid advances in technology—which are sometimes difficult for arts organizations to keep up with financially.

But Hartford Stage is currently in a very strong position of strength where we have been able to keep up. We are continuing to make the work relevant, and we are building our audiences. I don’t think the community should underestimate what a challenge that is.

And while we’re grateful for the wonderful support we get in the Greater Hartford area, the industry itself is very fragile. People need to recognize that, understand the fragility, and then work with us—and hopefully support us as well—as we work toward keeping the arts as vital, relevant, and accessible as possible. It’s a difficult challenge that requires the efforts of everyone in the community to get behind.

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