City’s culture director departs, leaving legacy of job growth

Barbara Lamb, director for New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs, hopes to develop a flourishing art community here in New Haven.
Barbara Lamb, director for New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs, hopes to develop a flourishing art community here in New Haven. Photo by New Haven Sister Cities.

Barbara Lamb, the director for New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs, is retiring from her post after 11 years of transforming the position into one that boosts job growth and business activity in the city’s art scene.

Before Lamb assumed her post, the department was in charge of virtually every public event in the city from concerts to cycling events to holiday celebrations. During Lamb’s term, the department expanded its role even further, and now works to bring in downtown businesses and jobs in addition to organizing events. Lamb’s legacy includes the Percent for Arts Initiative, which sets aside one percent of construction costs to fund public art in municipal buildings, as well as Project Storefronts, a program which promotes entrepreneurship in the local art community. After she steps down on Friday, the department will turn its focus to more small-scale, grassroots events, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.

“When I took over in the fall of 2000, probably 70-80 percent of our time was spent producing events,” Lamb said. “Since that time, we have diversified the types of things we do — now we contribute to public art, getting out into New Haven neighborhoods, cultural development and building a creative economy.”

Kim Futrell, Lamb’s executive assistant, said that by focusing beyond event organizing, the department had more time to concentrate on creative projects.

“At that time, the New Haven Jazz Festival took up almost all of our time,” she said, adding, “When we stopped holding the festivals in 2006, the staff’s time was suddenly freed up. We were able to take on a variety of other projects.”

Lamb said she spearheaded efforts to utilize art in different ways, tapping into the city’s creativity to tackle issues from the economy to job growth.

She cited Project Storefronts as an example of this philosophy: The project is one Lamb started in 2010 with the city’s Economic Development Administration to help local artists become entrepreneurs while diversifying the downtown business scene. Through Project Storefronts, artists can open stores temporarily in subsidized store lots that have difficulty finding tenants. Lamb said that these stores allow artists to find a consumer base for their work and fill up previously empty downtown storefronts. Project Storefronts won the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant in July, as well as the New England Foundation for the Arts’ first annual Creative Economy Award in May.

Margaret Bodell, the department’s public arts coordinator, said it is Lamb’s unique background experience in planning, as well as fiscal foresight, that has allowed her to take on such endeavors.

“A lot of people can’t do the magical numbers game with the budget that Lamb does. She truly has fiscal talent,” Bodell said.

The department’s full-time workers, Barbara and Kim, rely on part-time employees, consultants, casual workers and volunteers to manage their many projects. Lamb added that the department has never had a huge staff, but with all the projects they are working on, expansion of human resources may be necessary.

Indeed, she said the limited staff and budget was one of the department’s biggest challenges moving forward.

Currently, Lamb said that the department looks to support more grassroots efforts in New Haven neighborhoods. She added that although the department already reaches out to neighborhoods through the Mayor’s Community Arts Grant Program and by supporting small community groups, “there is much work to be done.”

Marcus Paca, Ward 24 Alderman and the chair of the Board of Alderman Committee on Community Development, said, “There are many cultural treasures in our neighborhoods that could be tapped and utilized. I hope the next director will step up to the plate.”

In the coming years, both Bodell and Lamb said they hopes to see New Haven become a major art destination between New York City and Boston, and Lamb echoed this sentiment by adding that she hopes the city becomes world-known for its art and culture.

Lamb said that the department has yet to choose her successor. She will retire Friday but in the meantime, Lamb said she encourages citizens with strong artistic interests to apply.

“One of the best things the job has given me is appreciation for artists, how hard they work, how creative they are and how their creativity can fuel and ignite the city,” Lamb said.

Despite stepping down on Friday, Lamb will continue to be involved as the president of the New Haven Sister Cities Board of Directors.

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