Well known for her contribution to arts and inclusion in the Hartford Region, Reverend Dr. Shelley Best was named Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Hartford Arts Council in April 2022. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Dr. Best about her new role and the role of the arts our region.
NAN PRICE: You’re transitioning from a longtime role at the helm of The 224 EcoSpace how did you decide to take on this new role?
REV. DR. SHELLEY BEST: It was a difficult decision to make. I served at The 224 EcoSpace for 20 years and we did some amazing work. As many people say, how did you leave your baby?
At the MetroHartford Alliance Welcome Reception in May, I mentioned the idea of serendipity. Serendipity showed up during the pandemic when I was trying to figure out how to pivot.
I had developed a connection with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and served on the committee for the Artists Of Color Unite project. I was learning more about the arts landscape, what’s going on in our community, and the power of art, which was an affirming learning experience. I could see the vision of the Foundation and I realized there was a great opportunity to use art as a vehicle for community building, social change, and transformation.
I was also learning about what it takes to make change happen. That was a turning point, because it started to shift me to look at art significantly. So, when the opportunity at the Greater Hartford Arts Council presented itself and I read the job description, which was complex, challenging, and a huge responsibility, I knew I could do it because I’d done all these things with The 224.
NAN: In your role as CEO, what do you hope to bring to the Greater Hartford Arts Council?
SHELLEY: I’m a community builder and a network builder. Bringing people together has always been a part of what I do. Bringing people together is how change and transformation happens.
I’m excited about the Arts Council because it’s a chance to change the arts landscape of this city and region. And I know I can lead that—I know I can have that kind of impact to make that difference.
I feel like I completed my assignment at The 224. This is the new assignment for me to transform, uplift, and create vitality in the arts network of Greater Hartford.
Arts organizations and leaders and artists have gone through so much throughout the pandemic. We need uplift one another and we need the motivation and inspiration to keep going. So, I see that as part of my leadership role too.
NAN: How do you make arts inclusive and encourage people at all different capacities to become involved?
SHELLEY: It’s about inviting people to the table, really reaching out to the diversity of people in this community, in all disciplines of art. It’s also about redefining art for our community. Art can be food, visual, dance, poetry, spoken word, storytelling.
As you look at the diversity of art, you start to see the diversity of the community. And when the whole community gets to tell its story in its own way, that’s when healing and wholeness and connection starts to happen. That’s when we start to really create a new fabric of possibility.
NAN: What about workforce opportunities in the arts?
SHELLEY: We have an enormous population of all kinds of creatives in the Hartford Region. Part of the opportunity is to build the creative core and develop a network of artisans who can be employed. We’ve got to get people opportunities to make livelihood with their creativity.
There’s a great opportunity in our community to build the infrastructure for people to be a part of the creative economy. And Hartford is meant to be a space for creative economy. We have a tremendous legacy with Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe and other people who have been known as major creatives in our region—and we still have that opportunity today.
As an organization, we want to help people get on the track of the creative economy and create opportunities for all kinds of people in Hartford—especially starting with the youth. We’re looking at ways to help young people get involved, because innovation and entrepreneurship come from the gift of creativity. And if we don’t cultivate our young people, we’re not cultivating innovation. So, part of the advocacy of our organization will be looking at things like arts education and opportunities for arts therapy for young people. We’ve got to take care of the next generation.