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Culture Takes Center Stage in Worcester

Throughout the decades, even the centuries, one vibrant theme has endured and flourished in Worcester’s collective heart and conscience ~ the love of arts and culture. Our city is fortunate to have an abundance of cultural institutions that keep alive symphonies, operas, ballets, theatre, history, and great works of art, acknowledging their significance and making them accessible to all. Too numerous to list are the
organizations that contribute to our exceptional cultural atmosphere, but there is a handful of individuals who come to mind when one thinks of Worcester’s longstanding tradition of world-class arts and culture; while their names may be familiar to many of you, we invite you to get to know them ~ and their passion for their work ~ a bit better in the following pages.

Jim Welu

Jim Welu

Jim Welu and the Worcester Art Museum
By Cristal Perriello

“My passion is art, people and learning, and that is why the Worcester Art Museum is a perfect place for me to work.” ~James Welu, Director of the Worcester Art Museum (WAM)

The world-renowned Worcester Art Museum was founded in 1898 by Stephen Salisbury III, and today houses more than 35,000 works of art. For the last 34 years Jim Welu has been helping to make the museum what it is today. In 1974, he started as assistant curator, in 1980 he was named chief curator, and in 1986 he became director of the Museum. He has loved every minute of it: “I have the opportunity to work with a world-class collection of art spanning 50 centuries, a very dedicated and talented staff, and a diverse and committed group of volunteers who are leaders from throughout the area,” says Welu. “I enjoy the great variety in my work and the opportunity for constant learning.”
Welu, who was born and raised in Iowa, says his career has always been focused on art, a concentration evident in his many accomplishments during his tenure as director. Under his leadership, there has been a steady growth in the endowment, the implementation of an endowed program of contemporary art, the development of a Facility Master Plan ~ which has guided major renovations throughout the facility, including handicap accessibility, growth in the Museum’s class program (which now includes about 7000 students and about 100 part-time teachers), and growth in the conservation program ~ with the introduction of scientific capability, many major additions to the collections, and several nationally and internationally recognized exhibitions including Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, Antioch: The Lost Ancient City, and Hope and Healing: Painting in a Time of Plague.

His most memorable exhibit? “Judith Leyster, because of the opportunity to give Leyster her first exhibition and to work with an international team of scholars,” says Welu. “Another favorite was Grant Wood, An American Master Revealed, because of the opportunity to bring to New England many of the important works by the most famous painter from my home state.”

Looking for something to do with your children or grandchildren? The Museum has something new to offer virtually every day of the week, from rotations within their galleries to an unusually extensive selection of classes and programs including special tours, concerts, family days, lectures, and workshops. You can also stop by the museum shop or grab a bite to eat at the café.

Added bonus: going to the museum won’t break the bank. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and full-time students with current ID, free for youth 17 and under; and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. admission is free for all thanks to sponsorship by Fidelity Investments and TJX Companies, Inc.

“The Museum has the largest scholarship program for an art museum,” says Welu. “One out of every three youth and one out of every five adults attends free based on need.”

But being a non-profit can have its downside. “The challenge is to secure sufficient funding to carry out the Museum’s many wonderful programs, particularly in economically challenging times like these.”

The Museum has a wide range of exhibitions featuring works from the collection, including an upcoming holiday instillation titled “Watercolor—Bodycolor.” The show, which runs December 20 – March 1, will display some of the Museum’s finest watercolors that are rarely viewed because of their light sensitivity.

For more information, visit www.worcesterart.org.

Stasia Hovenesian

Stasia Hovenesian

Stasia Hovenesian and Music Worcester Inc.
By Bernie Whitmore

Music Worcester Inc. presents the acclaimed Worcester Music Festival, the International Artists Series and Mass Jazz Festival. Stasia Hovenesian, the organization’s Executive Director, graciously welcomed me into her office for a wide-ranging conversation.

I was interested in Stasia’s personal relationship with music, so we touched upon that before delving into the rich history of the Festival. “I was not a music major,” she began, “but there was always music at home growing up.” Although she listens to all musical genres (even some country!), the classical Romantic period is her passion. Rachmaninoff is held in an exalted place.

For a lover of classical music, conversation with Stasia can get rather exciting. During her thirty-six seasons in charge of Music Worcester she’s met, attended performances by and addressed the needs of the era’s greatest directors and musicians. She relates playful tidbits about last-minute stage adjustments for a corpulent diva and stories of performances that left the audience astounded.

Stasia described the frailty of Dave Brubeck last year when, deep into his eighties, he needed assistance walking onstage. But when he sat down at the piano, his back stiffened ~ he seemed to grow a foot taller ~ and proceeded to play for three hours. I was at that concert ~ it was such a rush that I remained in jazz heaven for a week.

The Mission

Although Stasia is obviously fond of these stories, she turns quite solemn when relating the mission of Music Worcester, and that is simply to present classical music. True, each season there is a variety of other offerings ~ this year including the National Acrobats of China and Natalie MacMaster & Band ~ but it’s these engagements that often attract new audiences to Mechanics Hall and Worcester.

This mission of showcasing classical music is rooted in the Worcester Music Festival, oldest in the nation and poised to celebrate its 150th season. Stasia explained that the Festival was held in Mechanics Hall from 1858 until 1932, when it moved to the Memorial Auditorium. Then began a period of decline for Mechanics Hall until the community rescued it from neglect in the 1970s and moved the Festival back to its place of origin.

I’ve often wondered if the Hall is as impressive to performers as it is to us “locals.” Stasia confirmed that yes, it is indeed, and told of accompanying soprano superstar Leontyne Price into the Great Hall for rehearsal. Leontyne “…gazed all around, taking in the beauty and intimacy of her surroundings. She wanted to know the Hall’s history and expressed disbelief that Worcester had such a valuable resource in its midst. At rehearsal’s end she paused, looked up at the Lincoln portrait and said, ‘Honey, that was for you.’”

While the mission remains constant, Worcester has not. Stasia describes a time when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra would take residence in Worcester for a full week and each night’s performance would feature a renowned musician. The city embraced these events with parties and attended in formal attire.

If Stasia Hovenesian displayed nostalgia for those times it was but a trace, for the power of music to delight, uplift and transform is enduring. I admired her enthusiasm and leadership ~ her organization is dedicated to outreach in the community and presenting the highest quality programs each year. Before leaving I asked if she were ever thanked for her work. “Oh yes, at every concert people are all serious on their way in. But leaving…they come up and remark upon their good fortune.” Amen!

www.musicworcester.org

William Wallace

William Wallace

William Wallace of the Worcester Historical Museum
By Cristal Perriello

Founded in 1875, Worcester Historical Museum is the only organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting Worcester’s history in all time period and subject areas for all audiences: it is home to a research library of over 7,000 titles, an archive that houses thousands of documents, a large collection of artifacts, and numerous exhibits every year. “The museum is uniquely Worcester, we collect, preserve and share the history of this great community in all time periods and subject areas,” says William Wallace, Executive Director of the museum.

Wallace, who grew up in Lancaster, N.H., and previously worked at the Oswego Historical Society (NY) and Old Sturbridge Village, accepted the position at the Museum in 1976.

“We’re always open to new ideas and partnerships,” says Wallace. “It’s a community venture ~ staff, volunteers, Trustees, members, friends, and the community at large ~ make this happen. It’s OUR history.”

While at the museum, Wallace has made some major contributions including changing the name, location and size. The museum was previously known as the Worcester Historical Society and, while under Wallace’s leadership, moved from Salisbury Street to its current address at 30 Elm Street, which doubled the space. Wallace started community-based exhibitions and a public programs effort and is currently engaged in the museum’s largest project ~ planning for the Worcester/Blackstone Visitor Center, a new museum with new partnerships.

Wallace’s favorite exhibit? “It’s hard to pick one…Water St.: World With in a World had enormous response. Smile: An American Icon documented the Worcester connections with the smiley face,” says Wallace. “And ga til Amerika was a strong partnership with the local Swedish community.”

Besides it being the birthplace of the smiley face, Wallace loves Worcester because it is a great city full of interesting people with incredible opportunities to learn, enjoy, and share.

What keeps him going? “The partnerships with the greater community, and the new discoveries, constant learning of something new,” explains Wallace.

The museum has a small staff of seven full time employees who perform tasks in each basic area from bookkeeping and maintenance to library and collections. “We do a lot with volunteers who work in our library to digitize collections, help with mailings, organize community-wide events such as The Harvey Ball, and lead docent tours at Salisbury Mansion,” says Wallace.

There are definitely challenges to being a non-profit: “Doing a lot with a little,” says Wallace of the most frequently encountered. “We all have to be patient about the economy, tighten our belts, and plan for the future.”

The Things We Carried: Guatemalan Stories is on display through Winter 2009. The display exhibits the items Worcester-area Guatemalans carried with them to America. In the spring, the museum is hosting a traveling exhibit from the Charles Schulz Museum: Peanuts at Bat. “It will be fun,” says Wallace. “We’re collecting every day and sharing it with the community.”

For more information about exhibits, programs, and more, visit www.worcesterhistory.org, where you can also sign up for their eNewsletter.

Nikki Andersen

Nikki Andersen

Nikki Andersen and Higgins Armory Museum
By Christine R. Walsh

Worcester’s Higgins Armory Museum houses a treasure trove of steel treasures that stirs the imaginations of young and old alike. Within the building’s four levels, one can find over 3000 armors and components, 1000 examples of African, Islamic, Indian and Japanese body defenses and arms, beautiful stained glass, amazing pieces of carved wood and breathtaking tapestries. What began as one man’s collection is now one of Worcester’s most well-known cultural institutions.

Nikki Andersen, Executive Director of the museum, spoke highly of founder John William Higgins, whose massive collection of armor was created from a passion to learn and then share that knowledge.

“Higgins was in the pressed steel business,” Andersen explained. “And he felt very strongly that his employees should know about the history of the field in which they were working. So he began collecting items made from steel from all over the world. At one point, there was even an airplane.”

Andersen, a resident of Holden, came to the Armory after a career as a museum consultant. She was looking to work on the “insides” of a museum and when she heard about the opportunity, she jumped on it. In the future, Anderson intends to take on the challenge of rethinking the exhibits in the Great Hall and in the Quest Gallery and discover new ways of making them more engaging and self-directed.

Despite her own passion and energy, Andersen said the entire staff of the museum deserved a great deal of credit.

“In any museum, the curators are always the heart and soul,” she said. “Our curator is Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng and he is also a professor at WPI. Another key person at any museum is the head of the educational staff. We have a new director of education ~ Devon Kurtz. He was a longtime member at Old Sturbridge Village and most recently worked at the Concord Museum.”

Like many non-profits, the Armory finds marketing to be one of its greatest challenges. “Keeping ourselves in the mind of the public and in the eye of the public is something we need to think about constantly,” Andersen said. “We’re very reliant upon the guests who walk in the door for their financial support, but also foundations and government support.”

When Andersen and her staff are not concentrating on existing exhibits, they are designing new and exciting ways to keep the guests streaming through the doors.

“In February, we’re taking a rather romantic look at the Age of Armor. One of the events I’m most looking forward to is in honor of Valentine’s Day,” Andersen said. “We’re having an evening of champagne and chocolates with Shakespearian sonnets for adults. I think that is going to be tremendous fun.”

The Higgins Armory Museum, open Tuesday through Saturday from 10-4 and on Sundays from 12-4, has been a Worcester landmark for many years. Despite rumors of a possible change of location to a WWI memorial building on Main Street, Andersen wants people to know that no formal plans are in motion.

“We have to look at that opportunity very carefully,” Andersen said. “We’re very excited to be offered the chance, but its not a given at this time.”

For more information on the Higgins Armory Museum, go to www.higgins.org.

Michael Celularo

Michael Celularo

Worcester County Light Opera Company
By Christine R. Walsh

The Worcester County Light Opera has been a staple of the Worcester community since 1937. And as the times have changed, WCLOC has evolved to meet the cultural needs of theatre lovers, theatre goers, and thespians alike.

Linda Johnson, Past President of the WCLOC, current Board member, and sister of the organization’s current President, Michael Celularo, who ~ out of town ~ asked her to speak on his behalf ~ can proudly recount how this non-profit organization came into being and has managed to stay afloat across the decades.

“It was actually a group of about six people who had a very strong interest in performing the works of Gilbert & Sullivan and they performed together,” said Johnson. “By the end of 1937 the group had grown from about 6 members to about 100 thespians devoted to Gilbert & Sullivan operas.”

The first WCLOC production was a modest one ~ The Pirates of Penzance was performed in 1937. In 1938, however, the members received sound proof that not only had their hard work and dedication paid off, but that they had created a cultural legacy. The club’s first major production ~ a joint presentation of HMS Pinafore and Trial By Jury ~ was performed in Tuckerman Hall to a sold out house.

The WCLOC had the talent and were racking up successes; they just needed a permanent home. They purchased 21 Grandview Avenue in Worcester and, after creating in it an intimate black box theatre, affectionately dubbed the building “The Clubhouse.” Today, audience members still come to see shows at the “The Clubhouse,” but the space is also used for auditioning, workshops, rehearsals, and scenery and prop storage. But the shows that are performed today are slightly different from the club’s original Gilbert and Sullivan mission.

“In the 1950s, it became rather obvious that the world was moving away from light opera,” Johnson recounted. “Our first Broadway production in 1956 was No, No, Nannette. It was a cute little number. Even though we’ve kept true to [the “Opera”] name, we really don’t do operas any more. We do more Broadway style musicals and comedies and dramas.”

Linda Johnson

Linda Johnson

This year’s season promises to be an exciting one, with The Man Who Came to Dinner going up in December and The Women hitting the theatre in February ‘09. And only time will tell what rising stars may grace the stage just before hitting it big on Broadway or in Hollywood. According to Johnson, WCLOC has been a starting point for a number of successful young stars such as Eddie Mekka, who went on to play Carmine Ragusa on television’s Laverne and Shirley.

Johnson acknowledged how difficult it was to run a nonprofit organization, but then noted that WCLOC was extremely lucky. The club’s wonderful children’s theatre program has allowed WCLOC to receive a number of grants. Ticket sales also help keep the organization afloat. But it is also the hard work and donations of time and energy by the members of WCLOC’s Board that create another vital support system.

“All of our members at large on the Board take a role in the productions,” said Johnson. “Someone might do scenery. Someone might run lights or do costumes. It’s a very integral and active Board. No one walks away without getting their hands dirty.”

For more information on the Worcester County Light Opera, go to www.wcloc.com.

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