Former SEC chairman keynotes first Arts & Culture Empowerment Awards

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Arthur Levitt, chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission during the Clinton administration and longtime arts patron, challenged the audience at the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County’s inaugural Arts & Culture Empowerment (ACE) Awards ceremony to redouble their efforts at getting involved with local and regional arts activities.

“Go to shows, buy art, listen to music, and tell your friends to do the same,” he said in his keynote address at the May 19 event, held at the Shore and Country Club in Norwalk. “Get involved in arts institutions with leadership and philanthropy.

“When it comes to the arts,” he added, “we’re all kind of freeloaders. We enjoy the benefits of work we don’t do.”

Decrying the arts’ place at “the lowest rung of the educational ladder,” Levitt said that increasingly arts programs are being cut at schools, orchestras are closing down, and museums are selling off their artwork. Even the healthiest arts programs rely primarily on government and private support, he said, while the artists themselves are forced to take second jobs to support themselves.

Whenever executives join high-profile companies, he added, they are often asked to join the boards of such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, “but not the institutions that need that support. Suburban areas are in desperate need of the kind of help we can offer.

“Support your local community, not the city where you work,” he advised to enthusiastic applause. “We need that help.”

Levitt’s sentiments were echoed by introductory speakers Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and current senior fellow in residence at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and by Kristina Newman-Scott, Connecticut’s director of culture.

Actor James Naughton, who emceed the event, cited studies that found the children of low socio-economic backgrounds are five times more likely to graduate high school if they are exposed to arts education at a young age, and that they score on average 97 points higher on SATs than their arts education-deprived peers.

The ACE Awards are designed to recognize “those who have made a significant contribution to the community through arts and culture, or who have enriched the arts and culture sector through volunteerism or patronage,” according to the CAFC.

Recipients were:

  • ACE Corporate Award: Bank of America, “a leading supporter of the arts and sponsor of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Giving Day, which raised more than $1 million in 24 hours for local nonprofits, with 24 percent of those funds raised by arts & cultural organizations.”
  • ACE Artist Award: Westport Artists’ Collective founders Duvian Montoya, Nina Bentley, Miggs Burroughs, Tammy Winser, Helen Klisser During and Jahmane West, recognized “for encouraging the careers and talents of local artists and contributing to our diverse artistic community.”
  • ACE Nonprofit Award: Curtain Call Inc. of Stamford, accepted by Executive Director Lou Ursone for offering “year-round high-level community theatre performances, educational programs and [sustaining] a highly engaged and supportive group of patrons.”
  • ACE Educator Award: The educational staff of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich “for their exemplary work in arts and science education developing programming across generations and inclusive of STEAM educational concepts (Science, Technology, Education, Art and Mathematics).”
  • ACE Citizen Award: Richard J. Wenning, executive director of BeFoundation in Fairfield, “a family foundation devoted to dramatic improvement in the education of underserved children in Connecticut and co-founder of SpreadMusicNow which is dedicated to ensuring there is adequate funding for music education.”

The ceremony was attended by roughly 200 supporters.

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