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Town Council Reestablishes West Hartford Commission on the Arts

Javier Colon, winner of NBC's "The Voice" in its first season and a West Hartford resident, performs "Hallelujah" with the Hall High School Choraliers at a memorial for Denise D'Ascenzo. He is one of nine new members of the West Hartford Commission on the Arts. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The West Hartford Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to appoint nine residents to the existing but inactive West Hartford Commission on the Arts.

The West Hartford Commission on the Arts has been re-populated with nine new members, and will support efforts of the town’s arts and cultural organizations, like Playhouse on Park, which have been collaborating among themselves since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal operations. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (photo from April 2020)

By Ronni Newton

Nine residents with impressive talents as well as records of service to the community have been appointed to the West Hartford Commission on the Arts, and will begin an active effort to reaffirm the town’s commitment to artistic and cultural excellence and collaboration, creativity, and innovation.

West Hartford has technically had a Commission on the Arts since 1986, but although it has existed on paper in the Town Code, the organization sputtered soon after it started and the tenure of its members long since expired.

The following residents (see brief biographies below) have been appointed for one-, two-, and three-year terms, staggered to ensure continuity on the Commission:

  • Karen Bachman, Chuck Coursey, and Nancy Hoffman to a term ending Dec. 31, 2021
  • Javier Colon, Susan Rothenberg, and Mirela Panaitisor to a term ending Dec. 31, 2022
  • Matthew Bragg, Latanya Farrell, and Carol McCabe to a term ending Sept. 8, 2022. 

As she introduced a resolution appointing the nine new members of the Commission on the Arts, Cantor said it appears from town records that it previously operated for just a few weeks more than 30 years ago, but never really took off.

The discussion about reinvigorating the Commission, and connecting all of the arts and cultural organizations in West Hartford, has now been ongoing for a number of years, Cantor said.

“We have talked about a number of benefits … because people who are patrons of the arts don’t just donate to one organization,” she said. They are a critical driver for the town’s economy, and according to data, every dollar spent on tickets or admissions to arts or cultural events or sites translates into three additional dollars positively impacting local businesses, through attracting residents and visitors to dining, shopping, lodging, and more.

“West Hartford is blessed with so many arts and culture organizations that enrich the lives of residents and enhance the livability of our community,” Cantor said.

Being involved with and supporting arts and cultural organizations “teaches us the human condition, enriches our community, and makes us proud,” Cantor said.

The Council had been in discussions to restart the Commission in the spring, and then the pandemic hit.

The impact of COVID-19, however, drew even further attention to the need to reinvigorate and support these organizations.

Cantor thanked Chuck Coursey, a longtime supporter of arts and culture, for bringing together local organizations and helping them work together to lobby for support this spring as their traditional activities were forced to hit pause and couldn’t operate as usual. They worked together to share ideas and resources, and helped keep each other going.

A sign of the times in mid March 2020. Courtesy of Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society (we-ha.com file photo)

Cantor also thanked Minority Leader Lee Gold for his work in rebuilding the Commission.

“Activating the West Hartford Commission on the Arts, especially during these trying times that have so impacted our cherished arts and culture assets, is a great step forward for the town in reaffirming our commitment to arts and culture and helping them prosper,” Gold said.

According to information provided by the town, Connecticut’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $797.3 million in economic activity in state, supports more than 23,000 jobs annually, and returns $72.3 million in revenue to local and state coffers.

The ordinance originally establishing the West Hartford Commission on the Arts states that the purpose of the commission is “to foster and facilitate participation in, and development and appreciation of artistic and cultural activities within the Town of West Hartford and to encourage the display and presentation of artistic and cultural activities in public, school and community facilities town wide.”

The resolution passed Tuesday night “requests that the Commission review and make recommendations to the Town Council concerning how the structure and mission of the Commission can be improved to better enhance arts and culture in West Hartford.”

Cantor previously expressed her hopes that a a reinvigorated arts and culture commission will help those organizations, which play a critical role in the community, officially engage with the town’s economic development operations to develop strategy and an informational tool, to more fully integrate them into the structure of the town.

More information about the new members of the West Hartford Commission on the Arts can be found below.

Karen Bachman, co-founder and past president of the West Hartford Women’s Chorale, has been a resident of West Hartford for 31 year and has 18 years as school social worker in town. She has been actively involved with the Chorale for 15 years, and has also volunteered with West Hartford Community Interactive’s Be the Media Program, the Third Age Initiative with Leadership Greater Hartford, was a community representative with the West Hartford Juvenile Review Board, and a volunteer tutor at Rawson School in Hartford. Bachman is also a former commissioner and past president of the West Hartford Housing Authority.

Chuck Coursey, a West Hartford resident since age 3, is a founding board member and board member emeritus of Playhouse on Park, chairperson of the West Hartford Public Library Foundation, board member of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce and chairperson of the Chamber’s Economic Development Committee, and a past board member of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society. Coursey was a member of the Town Council for three terms (2003-2009), during which he was a leading advocate for the development of Blue Back Square and chair of the project construction oversight committee. He served as deputy mayor from 2007-2009. Coursey is president of Coursey & Company Public Affairs Communication, and and his wife, Mary Brennan Coursey, have five children, all of whom participated in and benefited from the West Hartford Public School’s arts programs.

Nancy Hoffman has been a resident of West Hartford for 41 years, and a local artist who helped develop the West Hartford “Art in Public Places” program and was a member of the West Hartford Art League board of directors for nine years, serving as president and vice president, as well as gallery sitter and chair of the gallery committee. She worked as a church administrator for 21 years at Westminster Presbyterian Church and is a member of the West Hartford Garden Club. She and her husband have three children, 10 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Javier Colon is a nationally-known singer-songwriter and recording artist who in 2011 was the winner of the inaugural season of NBC’s hit show, The Voice. A Connecticut native, he grew up in Stratford and studied music education at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School Of Music. After college, Colon performed as lead singer for The Derek Trucks Band, (now known as The Tedeschi Trucks Band) for almost two years before going solo and signing to Capitol Records in 2002 and releasing two albums. He and his wife, Maureen, returned to West Hartford in 2009 and now have three children who attend West Hartford Public Schools and actively participate in music and drama programs. Colon has been actively involved with local students, appearing as a special guest artist at Hall High Schools Pops N Jazz in 2018 and inviting Hall’s Choraliers to perform with him at his annual holiday concert at Infinity Hall in downtown Hartford. Colon continues to perform around the world and is currently working on new music set to be released in 2021.

Susan Rothenberg has lived in West Hartford for 24 years and is senior manager of Contracts Compliance for Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Co. When her two grown daughters attended West Hartford schools, they participated in the town’s music programs, including Inter-El chorus and orchestra, and Rothenberg enjoyed escorting them on school trips to regional museums, concerts, and Broadway shows. Both graduated from Hall High School. Rothenberg is a choral singer, who has previously participated in several area choirs and is currently a 10-year member of the West Hartford Women’s Chorale. She is also a dedicated supporter of Hartford area museums, music performances, and theater.

Mirela Panaitisor has 27 years experience as a music teacher and is the founder and music director of The New Old School of Music in West Hartford, a music school which puts the accent on helping every student develop a lifelong love for music making, equally supporting the most ambitious students who aspire to reach Julliard level as well as those who learn music to soothe their soul. She has a double degree in violin performance and music education, and has taught and performed violin in Europe, Africa, and United States. Since 2017, Panaitisor has been the principal-2nd violin for West Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and is also assistant orchestra director at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford. She is licensed in several early childhood music programs, and one of her interests is a long and assiduous research regarding the benefits and connections between music and movement as forms of communication, learning, coping tools, and autism. Panaitisor and her husband, Adrian, live in West Hartford and have two middle school-age children.

Matthew Bragg has lived in the Webster Hill neighborhood of West Hartford since 2003 and has been a financial advisor for UBS Financial Services since October 1996. He joined the board of directors of West Hartford Playhouse Theatre Group in October 2010, and was treasurer until June 2017 before beginning a two-year term as president. He currently serves as chairman of the Playhouse on Park Advisory Committee that formed in 2020.

Latanya Farrell has lived in West Hartford for 20 years, and is known to many in the community as an award-winning singer/performer/songwriter, and host of an annual slate of outdoor summer concerts and other year-round events. She is also well known for her involvement with youth sports and the public schools. She is an educator in the Bristol Public School system where she has held multiple roles, beginning as a kindergarten teacher then moving to middle school, eventually landing at the high school level. She moved into a role of administrator after 23 years in the classroom, and is now assistant principal of Bristol Eastern High School. Farrell was been honored as Educator of The Decade by her alma mater, Western Connecticut State University, in 2003, and received the Anchor Award from the University of Hartford in 2016 – the institution’s highest honor. She has also been nominated for Bristol Teacher of the Year several times, most recently in 2019. In 2019, Farrell headlined three performances at Playhouse on Park where she packed the house for a musical journey of her life and featured songs from her debut album – Feelin’ Alright. Farrell and her husband of 25 years have two children.

Carol McCabe, is a longtime resident , and she and her husband, Patrick, have three now-grown children all participated in the West Hartford Public Schools arts programs. McCabe was the Hall High School Choir parent president from 2006-2009, and Hall’s Theater Department parent leader from 2004-2007. She is a past board member of Playhouse on Park, with roles that included secretary in 2010, co-president from 2011-2016, and president in 2017. She has also been an active volunteer with the West Hartford Mayor’s Charity Ball, serving as co-chair in 2011 and administrative chair from 2012-2016. McCabe has also served on the Max Cares Foundation Board of Directors since 2016 and the Fairfield University College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board since 2017.

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