Finally, here is his story in the Fairfield Weekly, an alternative paper that has been covering Bridgeport more and more the past several years.
The article introduces the idea that the Facebook critic is a satirist (I called him a heckler) and gave credence to the idea that the visiting cop’s remarks were off-putting. I was right next to the police officer when he spoke up, and it just never registered to me that his visit was anything but random. But it seems that he was, indeed, asked to swing by. I’m sure now the BACC wishes he did so quietly.
Some of my comments, which I emailed to the writer, are included in the article. I was a reporter for many years — the turnaround is strange! I repeat what I’ve already said to her on my blog — that more emphasis on the website would have been a smart investment.
I’m not sure how long the article will remain online, so if the link is dead, please read below. Otherwise, give the Weekly the pageviews it deserves.
By Marc Ferris
At a public meeting held last week at the headquarters of the Bridgeport Arts and Cultural Council in the Arcade building on Main Street downtown, an armed, off-duty Bridgeport police officer walked in midway through the gathering, declared his support for the arts and reassured everyone that they were safe — if anything did happen, he said, his sharpshooting skills would neutralize the situation.
It was a strange exchange in a roomful of around 35 artists politely discussing the state of the arts in Bridgeport. The mostly civil tone contrasted with the controversial online back and forth spearheaded by Michael Raleigh, a local artist and satirist, who questioned some of the organization’s practices on his blog and on the council’s Facebook page under the nom de plume Phineas T. Barnum.
“Only in Bridgeport would an off-duty sniper show up and hang around in the hallway ‘just in case,’ he told me,” said Raleigh. “I thought, ‘That’s the punchline right there. Are they that out of touch with reality?’ It was surreal.”
The council’s executive director, Kenneth Kahn, said he has a longstanding policy to alert the police whenever he has a meeting in case of spillover out of the venue or disruptions. Kahn said the officer’s joke about firing his gun was “inappropriate.”
Raleigh said he merely asked why the council hired a designer who lives in Fairfield to create its marketing material and website (still just a holding page) and complete its first commissioned work: a series of posters portraying prominent figures in Bridgeport’s history. “I guarantee that there are a lot of artists in the Read building right next door to their office who pay taxes in Bridgeport and would have loved the opportunity to do this work for the council,” said Raleigh. He also wanted to know the ethnic makeup of the council’s board and determine if the group would reflect the city’s diversity.
As the acrimony swirled on Facebook, the council’s leadership shut down comments and deleted the discussion thread. Raleigh was criticized by other artists, since his acerbic wit is easy to misunderstand. One artist called his tactics a “smear campaign,” but the council’s lack of answers to his questions and deletion of online comments caused many observers to question its motives and practices.
To clear the air, Kahn, a prominent figure in Connecticut art circles who lives in Hartford, convened the meeting. He claimed that the website would be functioning by April and broke down the sources of the group’s $76,000 budget for its first year.
Regarding his hiring of a non-Bridgeport artist right off the bat, Kahn told the Weekly that the well-regarded artist had “done work for Bridgeport clients and I was looking for results. He had the look I wanted. I was too innocent; I failed to realize how sensitive this issue would be for Bridgeport artists. But I don’t really want to respond to cyber-bullying and people who hide behind pseudonyms.”
The council, charged with marketing Bridgeport’s artists, disbursing grant money and hosting exhibitions, distributed a list of board members along with printed answers to several questions raised on Facebook.
In a post about the meeting, local arts blogger Lee Steele wrote, “This was new information for a number of artists in the room. A website would have taken care of that groundwork months ago. Moreover, a website would have let the BACC be independent of Facebook, . . . where you just can’t win with hecklers. Keep their comments up, and you worry potential funders. Delete their comments, or disable posts, and you lose transparency.”
Council officials said that they shut down the Facebook page because it would put off potential donors, took too much time to maintain and had become a distraction.
Struck by how friendly the meeting was (despite the police officer’s strange joke), Steele told the Weekly that “It’s perfectly legitimate to be the cynic, ask questions and demand accountability, transparency, ethnic and racial balance and loyalty to local artists.”
Currently, one African-American serves on the council’s 16-person Board of Directors, though Kahn said that another has been invited to join and they are recruiting a third. When asked by painter John Lawton if the city’s diversity would be better represented on the board, Kahn told him that the group is in its infancy and that they planned to expand the board and recruit African-American, West Indian, Latino and Asian members.
Lawton indicated a willingness to “wait and see,” but he remained pessimistic. “African-American artists are detached,” he told the Weekly. “Our community is not tied into the social network. We don’t really see ourselves when art is mentioned, and there are a lot of negative feelings attached.”
Attendees debated how best to promote the arts in Bridgeport and sought answers from Kahn about whether the organization would focus exclusively on Bridgeport or whether it would also partner with artists in the region. Khan said that the breakdown would be around half and half: “Bridgeport-centric, but not Bridgeport exclusive.”
“All I did was ask a couple of questions on their Facebook page and it became an odd situation very quickly,” Raleigh concludes. “A lot more people are aware of the council’s presence and are watching their progress, hoping that they help all of Bridgeport, not just their inner circle. Nobody wants this to fail.”