HAMDEN — Three members of the town’s Arts Commission, including the chair, threatened to resign last week in protest of the decision to not renew the tenure of past Arts Commissioner Diane Brown.
At a meeting of the town’s Legislative Council on Nov. 20, a number of commission members spoke out against the decision, and what they described as a lack of communication, and unprofessional behavior, from Arts, Culture, Recreation and Wellness Director Karen Bivens.
According to current Arts Commission Chair Lushonda Howard, the problems began in February when then Arts Commissioner Brown invited a Grammy-nominated producer to host a concert on the town green for the Summer Concert Series.
Brown told Council members that Bivens “dragged her feet” in making the necessary arrangements and the producer instead chose Southern Connecticut State University’s jazz series.
“It was an opportunity missed for Hamden,” Brown told the council.
Bivens instead maintains that, at the time, the budget for the fiscal year had not yet been approved, so she had to consider the cost.
‘A lack of interest’
But the loss of the Grammy-nominated producer was just the beginning, according to Brown and Howard.
On July 4, Howard sent a letter to Bivens complaining of a lack of collaboration with the commission. She also noted that Bivens directed little funding to town-hosted arts events.
Howard wrote that the town’s Saturday and Sunday Series, which amounted to three events this year, were paid for by the Arts Commission using donated funds, and the annual Salute to Young Artists was never held “due to your [Bivens’] unwillingness to assist with planning.”
Howard told CT Examiner that the town usually hosts five events in the Saturday Series and five events in the Sunday Series.
Howard questioned other spending decisions, including when she requested roughly $1,000 to buy hand towels featuring the Arts Commission’s new logo — intended to be distributed at the concert series — and Bivens refused to cover the cost.
Howard also complained that the Arts Commission funded and served dinner for the “Death by a Thousand Cuts” performance in April, even though the town had received a grant to support the production.
“The Arts Commission consists of volunteer members. You are the paid town liaison. Your actions indicate a lack of interest, or more plainly, that you simply do not care about the wishes and collaboration of the Arts Commission, which is a commission in the town of Hamden’s charter,” Howard wrote.
Bivens told CT Examiner that the Arts Commission had accounts endowing the Saturday and Sunday Series, and that the Arts Commission traditionally provided food and hospitality for performers using their own funding and donations. Bivens said the grant, which paid for the production and venue, was not enough to cover the entire cost.
“I am always willing to work with the Arts Commission as I rely on the historical knowledge of the veteran commissioners for events such as Salute to Young Artists. We need commissioners to provide input, assist with event setup and breakdown, and reach out for donations as they have done in the past,” Bivens said.
The arts budget was another point of contention.
Howard told CT Examiner that Bivens was allowed to spend Arts Commission funds at her discretion, without informing members, and that she refused to provide the commission with monthly updates on its $125,000 annual budget.
Bivens countered that she had never received a request to view the budget, which is posted online.
‘There was no malintent’
Howard and Brown said they met with Bivens and Mayor Lauren Garrett and seemed to reach a compromise regarding the hand towels.
Garrett told CT Examiner that they also discussed the need to contract with artists for the Summer Concert Series months before the town’s budget is complete.
“Our budget is approved in mid-May, only six weeks before the concerts begin. The Arts Commission needed to know what funding would be in place in advance of the summer concerts to be able to sign contracts well in advance. My administration was concerned that allocating funding that had not been approved by the legislative council would be very irresponsible,” Garrett said.
But Garrett said a recent $150,000 grant from Quinnipiac University to support the Summer Concert Series would allow the commission to plan months in advance.
Brown told the Legislative Council that during the meeting she told Bivens that she had a “very terrible negative attitude” toward commission members and the public.
“I am very task oriented and passionate about accomplishing the work which, at times, can be spirited,” Bivens told CT Examiner. “There was no malintent. I would love to bring many acts to town, and unfortunately am limited by the allocated budget.”
But relations between the Arts Commission and Bivens only worsened after the meeting with Garrett.
During the commission’s October meeting, Howard and Bivens argued over the meals being served to performing artists. Howard described the meals and the presentation as “severely lacking,” while Bivens countered that Arts Commission members were not participating enough.
“If you want to have a better presentation, come and help set up the table. Come help and find food — get food donations for this,” Bivens said. “We’re providing the entertainment. We are providing food trucks to come out … we are definitely doing our part. Please do yours.”
Then on Nov. 8, Howard received an email from the town clerk saying a Democrat needed to be removed from the commission — there were 11 Democrats when party representation rules only allowed 10.
Howard, who is also a member of the Democratic Town Committee and the Democratic Registrar of Voters for Hamden, said she believed the mayor had purposely waited until after the election to remove Brown, who had become a target because of her outspoken “advocacy for the arts.”
Brown told CT Examiner she received an email on May 22 from the town clerk informing her that her term would be expiring on May 30.
Brown was one of four Arts Commissioners whose term was set to expire May 30. Howard said that two of those four were barely active on the commission.
But Garrett told CT Examiner that Brown’s tenure on the commission was not renewed because of an overrepresentation of arts commissioners living in the 7th district. According to the charter, she said, there could be no more than two individuals from any one district on a commission.
On Nov. 13, Brown received a letter from the mayor’s office thanking her for her service to the commission.
A limited council role
Legislative Council President Dominique Baez told CT Examiner she was aware of the complaints regarding Bivens, but that the council was limited in its role to address the issue.
Commission appointments come from the mayor’s office, she said, and the council has no role in Brown’s removal.
“There seems to be some kind of lack of communication or an unclearness of why the mayor didn’t forward her appointment to us,” Baez said. “I hate that people have to go through this … that the Arts Commission had to be thrown into a tizzy, that their executive board has to feel this kind of unsureness and that there hasn’t been a more solid means of figuring this out.”
Baez said she has not spoken with the mayor about the Arts Commission, adding that the council recently made changes to the town charter which she hoped would streamline the process of making appointments to commissions.
Legislative Council member Katie Kiely told CT Examiner that her first reaction on hearing the complaints from the Arts Commission was to ask how the council could work with the mayor’s administration to improve communication overall. She also noted that the council was responsible for setting the town’s budget, and that council members needed to be aware of what the commissioners were requesting.
“At the end of the day, it’s true, the director of arts and culture doesn’t actually get to determine what the budget is. She can only ask … so the council really is the one,” Kiely said. “I think as a council, we need to know what it is that the commissioners want. They may not like our decision, or I might not have the money to get those resources, but if we’re not actively supporting that communication process, there’s really no way to help out.”
Howard told CT Examiner that at the urging of the council, she and other members will remain on the commission rather than resign.