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Bridgeport’s City Lights advocates for local arts

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Art aficionados will soon be seeing a lot more of Bridgeport’s City Lights, the gallery that has been part of Bridgeport’s downtown cultural scene since 2004.

“We’re in transition,” said Suzanne Kachmar, the gallery’s executive director. “For a year, we’ve been in this space — 855 Main Street, right across from the headquarters of People’s United Bank. We moved last year from 37 Markle Street, one block away. Now, we found a new space — 265 Golden Hill Street, the top of the Cabaret Theatre Building. It’s a nice clean space with track lighting — we’ve already hung a little work up there and we’re ready to go.”

Iyaba Ibo Mandingo shows his work to Suzanne Kachmar, executive director at City Lights Gallery in Bridgeport. Photos by Phil Hall

However, the street-level 855 Main St. space is not being forsaken. Instead, that will be transformed into City Lights Vintage, a retail setting offering art, antiques and collectibles. The Golden Hill Street space will serve as the gallery’s main exhibit venue, and a third location in the Harral Security Wheeler Building development on Bridgeport’s Main Street will function as a City Lights working space. “That will be more of a pop-up nature,” Kachmar added, noting that the gallery has already hosted a fashion show, a poetry performance and an under-the-radar art exhibition.

While Kachmar is planning City Lights’ upcoming special exhibitions — including a 13th anniversary retrospective show featuring the venue’s most prominent artists — she is finding herself more focused on the back-office operational side of the nonprofit gallery than the public-facing gallery exhibitions. She said City Lights operates on an annual budget that ranges between $150,000 and $200,000, with the total sum dependent on how much the gallery can generate in grants and through fundraising. Foot traffic in the gallery averages about 2,500 per year, and purchases of the displayed works varies by exhibitions.

“We’ve had ok sales, but not as many as we’d like,” she continued. “But we were pleased with it. One of my favorite things to do is write an artist a check for a sale of work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often enough. We’re hoping by having more than one space, that will help encourage more sales.”

Kachmar is also an increasingly ubiquitous presence as a lobbyist on behalf of the gallery’s artists, working to get their creations placed in corporate and residential settings. While some art-seeking individuals occasionally make a direct call to the gallery for recommendations, Kachmar takes an aggressively proactive approach in networking with private sector entities.

“We let people know we are here,” she said. “When they need to buy art, they should think here. There is plenty of office space and apartments here in Bridgeport, and I am sure we can help a lot of them getting art on their walls while sustaining the artists that are here.”

Kachmar and the gallery also devote considerable time to generating public awareness of the arts through programs aimed at local schools and community groups. And in an effort to strengthen the cultural scene as a whole, City Lights is the driving force behind the Bridgeport Art Trail, a citywide celebration of local arts institutions held every November, as well as the nascent Public Arts Committee that is exploring new opportunities for displays in public spaces by Bridgeport-area artists.

Furthermore, Kachmar stressed a strength-in-numbers approach in having City Lights share its new Golden Hill Street space with the Cabaret Theatre and New England Ballet Company, creating what she dubbed “a downtown community-based arts anchor.”

For Kachmar, the city is ready for a new wave of cultural activity. “I’ve been in the Bridgeport arts scene for over 40 years and it’s nice to see new faces in that part of Bridgeport, because in the ’80s there was a small handful of artists on Elm Street that had studios here,” she said. “Now, there are more and more artists in Bridgeport. But if artists cannot make a living here, they will move to other places and hang their work in other places.”

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