Arts Council executive director to retire in June

Frances “Bitsie” Clark loves meetings. It does not matter how long — Clark says she loves watching people mingle, and she loves dissecting personalities.

“I’m interested in the way things happen,” she said. “It keeps you from getting burned out. Most people have their eye very, very much on the goal. If they aren’t getting a kick, they will get frustrated.”

But after 19 years of serving as the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, Clark has announced that she will retire on June 30.

For the last two decades, Clark has been, in many eyes, the most prominent figure in the city arts scene. Her expansive personality and her drive — at 71, she still works long hours into weekend mornings — have made her a darling of the local media and a favorite of local artists.

“She’s a woman with unstoppable energy,” said Helen Kauder, the executive director of Artspace. “She’s part of the arts fabric. I think there’s an enormous amount of knowledge that’s obviously irreplaceable.”

Clark said that when she turned 70 last winter, she began to contemplate retirement. She said she would like to spend more time with her young grandson.

She came to the arts council with, she said, almost no knowledge of the arts. Most of her previous professional life had been spent working for the Girl Scouts.

“I knew nothing about the workings of the major [arts] organizations,” she said, adding that she knew just two local artists when she began the job.

Since then, Clark has built a reputation on her ability to navigate the strange, sometimes contentious political backwaters of the local arts scene. Coming in, her charge was to help develop the Audubon Street arts district; the job she did, mostly working behind the scenes to facilitate cooperation, was by all accounts superlative.

Clark and her colleagues said she has, for the most part, continued to work behind the scenes to promote the local arts scene. Clark said that she would like to see the arts council focus on building more of a public presence.

“In the past, one of the arts council’s strengths has been to work behind the scenes,” said Elizabeth Monz, the director of the Regional Cultural Plan. “To make things happen, we need people to know that’s what’s happening.”

In order to be more influential, Monz said, the arts council must take more credit for the job it already does.

Monz will take over as acting director of the arts council in June, until a search committee makes a permanent appointment; Clark has suggested that Monz herself should be her replacement as executive director.

“At this point I will definitely apply for the [permanent] position,” Monz said. “But anything can happen.”

After her nearly 20 years at the helm, most local arts leaders are mourning the loss of a woman whose knowledge of the arts scene is, by most accounts, bottomless. But with the infusion of new blood, some are looking for changes at the arts council.

Kauder said she would like to see the arts council be a more active voice, representing arts interests in Hartford and Washington. She also said there has been discussion that the council might act as a custodian of funds for local arts organizations to cut down on the merciless march of small-ticket fund raising needed to keep a gallery or other business alive.

The council, Kauder added, could be a more active champion of local arts organizations to the city government, pressing for sorely needed funds.

But a new direction for the council would hardly be an indictment of Clark’s tenure, which seems to have touched every local organization.

“When I started to work in the arts, the first thing I did was sit down with Bitsie,” Kauder said. “The enthusiasm and the can-do feeling was what allowed us to take these first steps.”

Monz agreed: “She lives, eats and breathes the arts.”

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