The Day – Norwich Arts Center turns 35

When did the art start?

Half a million years ago, someone engraved an image on a seashell. A few hundred thousand years later, a Neanderthal man seems to have tinkered with eight eagle claws to make fashion jewelry. A hundred thousand years later, people were painting on the walls of caves.

Forty thousand years later – 1987 to be exact – musician and songwriter Faye Ringel, sculptor and photographer Peter Liebert, painter Rita Dawley, arts activists Lottie Scott and Marcia Heath, and a handful of other artists and appreciators have decided that Norwich, Connecticut needed to organize its arts with some sort of artist registry and calendar of events.

The group founded the Norwich Arts Council and soon fell into a bigger dream – a home for the arts in Norwich city centre.

They found such a place in a 19th-century temperance hall at 60 Broadway, just below City Hall. It was a perfect location for what was to become the Norwich Arts Center. There were two storefronts, offices for rent upstairs and a theater – or rather a wreck of a theater – on the top floor. The scene had everything from temperance meetings to vaudeville acts to boxing matches.

The ground floor had served as a beauty salon, coffeeshop and bar. But it was empty in 1987. Marcia Heath’s husband, Dr. Brian Heath, owned it and was willing to rent the place and then sell it, at below-market prices.

The market price in Norwich city center was then and still is a debatable issue. Real estate is not necessarily worth what it is worth. Shops come and go, unfortunately more often when they are closed than when they are open. Magnificent buildings stand empty.

The plan was to open an arts center cooperative, a place where all forms of art – visual, musical, theatrical – by all kinds of artists – old, young, amateur, professional, obviously mad, slightly sane of mind – could continue the very human urge to create beauty.

With state and city funding, the new Norwich Arts Center has begun to take shape. Thanks to a major donation from the widow of Donald Oat, who owned The Bulletin when it was a major newspaper, the theater was brought back to life. The NAC has become a regional center for the arts.

The inexplicable mystery of art

Art is an intrinsically human need. This is part of what distinguishes humans from other species. Art touches the human soul. It brings us together. It evokes truth, beauty, love and the fragility of life. We don’t understand where it comes from or how it affects us so deeply. Part of the beauty of art lies in its inexplicable mystery.

Whatever has been handed down to us since Neanderthal times has stood firm in Norwich city center for 35 years. Despite the economic shifts from city centers to shopping malls and then to the internet, the Norwich Arts Center has remained an enduring mainstay of the city centre.

Among the many amazing things about the NAC, besides its amazing art, amazing music, and amazing theater productions, is the fact that it has no paid staff. As commercial establishments come and go, it is the voluntary non-profit organization that remains open decade after decade.

And although volunteers have supported the NAC for 35 years, it is only for lack of more volunteers that the organization is unable to grow. The will is there but not the hands. Faye Ringel, who served as the NAC’s first president and is now co-president, would like to see the NAC expand to offer children’s programs, community classes and other special events.

Today, the NAC’s Blues on Broadway and Miss Lottie’s Café series draw audiences from 100 miles away. The Donald L. Oat Theater provides opportunities for award-winning playwrights, actors, and directors. Two galleries showcase amazing works by local and regional artists who might otherwise be unknown to their own communities.

One of these galleries is reserved for monthly exhibitions dedicated either to an artist elected within the NAC organization or to a given theme, to which any artist can submit a work.

The other gallery rents spaces to artists, artisans and authors.

The first Friday of each month launches a new exhibition with a reception at 6 p.m. The galleries are open Thursday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.

On Friday, May 27, the NAC celebrates its 35th anniversary with a gathering of artists, volunteers, community members and local leaders. It’s by invitation only, but anyone interested in attending can request an invitation by emailing [email protected]

For more information, visit norwicharts.org.

Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator and editor of the New London Librarium. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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