Arts Council: Nurturing the arts and artists

In its fifth year, group is creating a county arts plan

BY KATHY HALL Correspondent


JEFF GRANIT staff Amid boxes still to be unpacked from a recent move to new quarters, Monmouth County Arts Council members (l-r) Mary Eileen Fouratt, executive director, Alice Berman, president, and Henry Green, board member, discuss council business prior to a board meeting.JEFF GRANIT staff Amid boxes still to be unpacked from a recent move to new quarters, Monmouth County Arts Council members (l-r) Mary Eileen Fouratt, executive director, Alice Berman, president, and Henry Green, board member, discuss council business prior to a board meeting. What do a crafter who creates handmade blankets for fragile infants, a proponent of an 18th-century mystic composer, and a contemporary art gallery administrator have in common? All are members of the Monmouth County Arts Council also known as MCAC.

The arts service organization based in Red Bank this year is celebrating its fifth anniversary as an independent entity.

MCAC was founded in 1971 with seed money from the Junior League of Monmouth County and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. In 1973 an anonymous donation funded the purchase of the Carlton Theatre (later renamed the Count Basie) in Red Bank.

But maintaining the theater and meeting the needs of a growing arts community proved difficult, and on July 1, 1999, MCAC divested itself of the theater, which is a separate nonprofit and a member of MCAC.

“There was just a feeling that the organization had dual missions,” explained MCAC Executive Director Mary Eileen Fouratt. “The theater was a physical presence and had critical needs like fixing the roof. There wasn’t enough of a focus on the many different arts group throughout the county. With the separation, the theater could focus on its mission and the arts council could focus on its.”

MCAC promotes the role of the arts in the county’s economy and quality of life, provides technical assistance to artists and arts organizations and assists in the development of arts education.

The council’s mission also includes facilitating partnerships with local government, human and social service organizations, businesses and educators, and creating a sense of community among the county’s diverse artists and arts groups.

“When we split [from the Basie], there was a lot of arts activity in the county,” Fouratt said. “But it was kind of disparate; groups weren’t talking to each other. Things are hugely different now, especially in terms of communication and networking between groups, and we hope we are a part of that.”

Since divesting itself of the theater, MCAC has grown from 35 member groups to 80. There are also almost 300 individual members.

“The arts community has really matured,” she added. “Of course, we still have emerging groups, and I hope we always will.”

In 2004 MCAC received the largest Local Arts Program grant given by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, $140,337. Most of that money is funneled to local arts groups.

Fouratt, who has a background in museum education, has been with the organization for seven years. She was community arts director for two years and became executive director when the council separated from the theater.

Alice Berman, a choir director at area high schools and former executive director of the Monmouth Conservatory of Music, has been president of the arts council board since the split.

In a recent interview, they outlined some of MCAC’s accomplishments during the past five years.

“We’re really proud of the arts education program we’ve started and the outreach we’ve done to educators,” Fouratt said.

MCAC’s Teen Arts Connection provides high school students involved in the arts with workshops and opportunities to see the work of local arts groups and interact with professional artists and administrators.

Since 2000, the Arts Education Awards program has highlighted outstanding school arts programs, arts educators, administrators and schools that successfully incorporate the state arts standards.

“A lot of good art goes on in the schools that the community at large isn’t aware of,” Fouratt explained. “The idea was to shine a spotlight on teachers, administrators and school districts that are infusing arts into their curriculum.”

For Berman the most significant accomplishments center around organizational maturity and a commitment to diversity.

“There is a programmatic, staffing and visionary stability that just wasn’t here five years ago,” she said. “Today we have an organization that is fully engaged in the art and culture of the community on a consistent, reliable and ongoing basis.”

Last year, MCAC started an endowment to help ensure the organization’s fiscal stability, and recently it completed a consultation with Partnership in Philanthropy that focused on increasing both earned income and foundation and corporate support.

MCAC’s diversity activities have been funded by three grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

“We are developing an initiative that really pays attention to and engages with artists who are not in the mainstream, including African American, Latino, Southeast Asians, the whole gamut of immigrant artists,” Berman said.

According to Fouratt, the diversity initiative’s goals are to help encourage the art forms of Monmouth County’s many ethnic groups and bring an awareness to the rest of the community that these arts exist. MCAC’s first outreach effort in 2001 targeted Southeast Asians, and recently it completed a project with sculptor Willie Cole that focused on African-American groups in Asbury Park.

The group also worked with Stevie Lishcin Smith and Robert Smith, founders of Intercultural Collaborations, on a “Taste of Culture” series, which used food as an introduction to African-American, Vietnamese and Asian Indian cultures.

MCAC publishes State of the Art, the only arts newspaper covering Monmouth County. Arts events and contact information about local arts groups are also available on the recently redesigned MCAC web site

MCAC sponsors an annual Juried Art Show at the Monmouth Museum, maintains a resource library, and provides workshops and panel discussions for arts organizations, artists and the general public. In 2003, MCAC took over administration of the County Teen Arts Festival in partnership with Brookdale Community College

Both Berman and Fouratt are optimistic about MCAC’s future.

“In the next five years things are going to change even more dramatically,” Fouratt said, noting that the staff has grown from one part-time executive director in 1999 to two full-time and four part-time staff members as of January 2005.

Using state grant money, the council created two new positions, that of community arts director filled by Ronnie Gardstein and arts education director, held by Robin Ellenbogen.

Currently in the process of being developed is a community arts plan for the county that will be released next year

“Ten years from now we’ll have a million dollar endowment fund and a development director helping us to have substantial resources to expand programs,” Fouratt predicted.

“The sky’s the limit,” Berman said. “I’d like to see the arts council taking a lead in creative arts initiatives throughout the county, get them under way and then have the community take over.”