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‘We had to grow our way out of it’

  • The front of the Capitol Center For the Arts on South Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

Published: 8/10/2021 5:21:23 PM

Nicki Clarke retired at the end of last month as the executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts, only the second leader in the institution’s history. She sat down for an interview with former Congressman (and one of the CCA’s founding leaders) Paul Hodes on WKXL’s Capitol Closeup to reflect on some of the major challenges that the CCA has overcome – both early on and more recently in her tenure – to add a new venue, bring in new experiences, and become the hub of Concord’s downtown.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Paul Hodes: Tell me a bit about your own artistic endeavors before CCA.

Nicki Clarke: I grew up in Springfield, Vermont. My great fortune was that a woman moved into town who was a ballet dancer. So my first artistic endeavor was getting to study ballet. I just adored it, but then she moved. So I did gymnastics; and I was determined that I was going to go to Springfield College and be on that team. That didn’t work out so well, but the dance studio was just down the hallway, and that got me back into dance. I found my way eventually to New York and performed as a modern dancer for several years. Then I started to get some interest in arts administration. My husband (who had done his Masters there) said, “you should go to the Ed school at Harvard, you can figure it out there.” So that’s what I did next. Then I came back to Vermont and I landed the job as the Arts and Education Director at the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier.

Paul Hodes: When you got the job at CCA in 2007, what was your assessment of it?

Nicki Clarke: There were two big things that I remember thinking: that it’s really a large complex, and that it was still underutilized. There wasn’t enough activity in the building. There needed to be more somehow – build the number of performances and the different kinds of performances. And so I felt there was growth potential there, but we had to figure out how to do it.

And then, as always, when you get there with any arts organization, the financial situation was a bit fragile. There had been some upgrades to the facility, which were great, but we had to live off what we could make off the stage and contributions. So fortunately we grew the Ovation Society and that really helped. And we started to really take a little bit more risk with our programming. Sometimes bigger names brought in more people and shows could be a bit more financially successful. We were starting to build that, right when the great recession hit. Those were three very challenging years where we had to downsize again.

Paul Hodes: Contributions and donations must’ve been very hard to find.

Nicki Clarke: Yes! The people who were close to us really tried to keep going as best they could. But we knew we couldn’t depend on people. And so it was a time where we needed to contract a little bit, but then start to figure out how to move forward, literally to grow our way out of it. That’s when we decided to create the Spotlight Cafe. And so younger artists, more up-and-coming artists, allowed us to have activity in the building. It kept us really busy and it enriched what we were able to bring to people, and it brought a new audience to us.

Paul Hodes: And then an opportunity arose?

Nicki Clarke: I got a call from the wonderful Steve Duprey who said, “Nicki, there’s a great opportunity up the street for your second venue. Can you meet me down at the old Concord theater?” So he took me on a tour and it was in really bad shape, but I could see past the decrepit pieces of things falling off the walls and collapsing ceilings, and I said, oh my God, he’s absolutely right, this is it.

Paul Hodes: I’ll say that Steve Duprey was instrumental in the founding of the place because he understood that we might be able to use, in a very novel way, some available state programs that had never been used to raise money for arts institutions. The new venue is just spectacular. It’s state of the art. It’s delightful. It gives the artists just an extraordinary place to perform. It’s a total success.

Nicki Clarke: Then there was a pandemic. And it took a while for it to really focus on the fact that we really are going to have to shut down. Then we obviously had to negotiate all of the shows that were scheduled. No April, May, June, July, and onward. So there’s been a continual rescheduling, and then we had to move everybody to a remote working setup. And then we had to advocate to our elected officials to say we needed help. The arts sector was going to need help to keep going, and I am so grateful for our entire congressional delegation that listened and heard us.

Paul Hodes: Now you’re onto your next chapter. What are your thoughts about your tenure?

Nicki Clarke: I am so grateful for the opportunity that I had to lead this institution. It is, I have to say, really hard to walk away, because I love the people. And yet it is time to move on. I know the Capitol Center is going to find its way forward. There’s lots of good things happening, it’s going to be reopening, and it will go on and keep growing. I’m off to some other creative ventures … that I’m going to just keep quiet about right now!

(Joe Thomson of WKXL transcribed and edited this conversation.)

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