CT Humanities: 50 Years of Serving Humans (and Not Squirrels)
June 3, 2024 • Features & News, Uncategorized

The calls coming in on the rotary phones of the fledgling Connecticut Humanities Council weren’t what the staff were expecting – at all.

“Can you help us get these squirrels out of our attic?”

Fifty years later, Marianne Finnegan (then Marianne Barnaby) still laughs recalling how the public had no idea what to make of the brand-new organization.

“Everyone thought we were some kind of an animal organization, like the Humane Society,” Finnegan said. “We knew then that we had our work cut out for us, to establish ourselves, so that people could understand who we were, what the humanities were, and how we were going to make a difference.”

It was 1974, and Finnegan had just earned her Ph.D. in English and American Literature from the University of Connecticut. A graduate advisor encouraged her to take a job as the first executive director for the Connecticut Humanities Council, which had just been formed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH was less than a decade old itself, having been established in 1965 along with the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1972 it began the process of forming affiliate humanities councils in U.S. states, DC, and territories.

The Connecticut Humanities Council was incorporated as an independent non-profit, housed in donated space in Founder’s Plaza in East Hartford, with a governing board of directors, and Finnegan’s position was initially part time.

“It was a wonderful job, probably the best job I ever had,” she said. “I was very fortunate that I had a board that was very supportive. Some of them were real characters, and they were very connected, which is what we needed.”

The council’s first board was comprised mostly of members from the academic community – Yale, University of Connecticut, University of Hartford, Wesleyan University, University of New Haven, Connecticut College, Manchester Community College, Western Connecticut State College – along with two newspaper editors, two state senators (Nicholas Lenge and Ruth Truex), and leaders from other nonprofits.

With its first NEH grant allocation of $185,000, the Council found itself in a unique position: it had grant money to fund humanities projects but was faced with a public that had little to no understanding of what the humanities even were. Early on, NEH funds were also restricted for projects that were directly tied to pressing public policy issues.

“We had to convince people that we had money,” Finnegan said. “Once we explained, eventually we started getting applications.”

Many of the first applications came from professors and were deeply entrenched in academia, Finnegan said.

“We had to keep conversations going to move it more into public conversations,” she said, “things that impacted peoples’ everyday lives — and less around academic ideas.”

Getting the word out through the media helped – stories like a January 1974 article in the Hartford Courant stated funding could cover “lectures, discussions, seminars, conferences, radio and television panel shows, and town meetings for adults on public issues.” At that time, Finnegan said emphasis was on “deepening citizen understanding of the issue and increasing citizen awareness of how the issue is being dealt with in the state.” She also expressed hope that funded projects would “bring new insight to public policy issues from humanities disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, languages, and social sciences.”

That, Finnegan said, “created discourse. Which was really the whole point.”

The NEH had tasked the Council with creating a theme for its first year, and to do so, the team created a survey asking members of the public to share what pressing public issues were most important to them.

“What came back from the survey, again and again, was a question to us: ‘How can I, as a citizen, be heard?’” Finnegan said. “The public was asking for its voice to be amplified.”

Based on the survey results, the 1974 theme became “Being Heard: Understanding Public Issues and How They are Dealt with in Connecticut.”

The Council soon moved into offices on the Wesleyan University campus. When NEH removed the requirement that funded projects be tied to public policy issues, Finnegan was relieved.

“That made things so much more interesting intellectually,” she said. “We had so much more freedom to expand.”

Finnegan recalls that some of the earliest projects the Council funded centered around studies on the Holocaust (a topic of particular interest to Finnegan, who was born in Germany to a Jewish father and fled as a child with her family to America during Hitler’s rise), along with a series of short films about the history behind Connecticut’s many nicknames: the Nutmeg State, Land of Steady Habits, the Constitution State, etc.

After six years, Finnegan moved on from her position with the Council, eventually moving to Portugal to operate a bookstore and authoring two books. She passed the humanities gene along to her daughter, Sheila Daley, who today is curator and director of special projects at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford.

Finnegan is proud of the role she played in the Council’s history, and she was pivotal in shaping its future: in 1977, Finnegan hired Bruce Fraser, a historian and political speechwriter who would go on to lead the organization for almost three decades.

“Bruce was so politically savvy, an academic, and he knew so many people from his time in politics,” she said, noting that Fraser’s experience and connections brought more visibility to the Council and the humanities, which were often overshadowed by arts organizations.

“The humanities have always been much harder to describe than the arts,” Finnegan said. “It’s harder to be more specific and definitive.”

During his long career with the Council, until his death in 2010, Fraser was a fierce champion of support for the humanities. An article in NEH’s Humanities magazine in 2008 stated that “Fraser has campaigned for parity between arts and humanities funding, even if the arts are an easier sell.”

Briann Greenfield, a former board member for Connecticut Humanities who now serves as NEH director of the division of preservation and access, wrote extensively about Fraser’s impact and accomplishments in her February 2013 article, “Making the Humanities Public: The Example of Connecticut’s Humanities Council,” in the National Council on Public History’s scholarly periodical, The Public Historian.

Greenfield described how, in the 1980s, Fraser decided the Council should ‘‘exercise more concerted intellectual leadership in the state by conceiving and developing its own humanities programs.” This also allowed the Council to bring in new revenue streams . Greenfield noted that until 1987, the Council’s sole funding had come from the NEH, but the new direct program offerings led to private and corporate support. She said a major funding breakthrough, and one of Fraser’s most significant legacies, came in 1995 when he secured a line-item appropriation of $220,000 from the Connecticut General Assembly to support Council programs.

“CTH’s appropriation was one of the first examples of significant state support for a council [in the country],” Greenfield wrote.

Among the Counci’s new programmatic offerings Greenfield highlighted were “film and book discussions aimed at older adults and professional development programs for teachers,” reading programs for families like Book Voyagers and Motheread, and an Emmy-winning 19-part history series in conjunction with Connecticut Public Television called The Connecticut Experience.

After Fraser’s passing, Stuart Parnes, a 30-year Connecticut museums veteran and former Council board chair, took the helm of the organization. During this time, he helped lead the Council through strategic planning that would guide the organization’s direction and brand for the years that followed. Under Parnes, the organization dropped the word Council from its name in 2012, which Greenfield described as “an effort to appear less stodgy,” and the organization became the CT Humanities it is still known as today.

Parnes also helped reaffirm and expand CT Humanities’ commitment to and delivery of literature programs, including bringing the Library of Congress-affiliated Center for the Book to its new home at CT Humanities. He also instituted an organization- and state-wide, year-long focus that explored the past, present, and future of work in CT known as CT at Work.

Concerned with relevancy in “an increasingly diverse state,” Parnes and the board strategically focused on expanding the CT Humanities’ audience beyond one that tended to be “older, well-educated, and ‘largely white,’” according to an article in the NEH’s Humanities Magazine in May 2013.

More diverse programming followed, including a Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center/Mystic Seaport project supported by CT Humanities led by Dr. Jason R. Mancini called “Connecticut Indian Whalers: Work, Community, and Life at Sea.” That project was Mancini’s first engagement with CT Humanities where he would, in 2018, assume the role of executive director.

Parnes retired in 2014, and after a period of tumult in which CT Humanities was defunded by the state, a former CT Humanities board chair, Helen Higgins, came back to aid the organization as interim executive director. Higgins helped the organization navigate staff cuts and anoffice relocation and guided the process which led to Mancini’s hire.

Mancini, having spent most of his career on the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation Reservation working with Indigenous peoples, brought new relationships to CT Humanities and a new focus on engaging communities of color. And, collaborating with a new generation of cultural leaders in Connecticut, he positioned CT Humanities as a hub and connector to demonstrate to the public the value/relevance of humanities in our lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic required the organization to pivot and respond quickly, working with the Connecticut Office of the Arts and Department of Economic and Community Development to leverage statewide contacts and existing grantmaking infrastructure. Numerous state- and federally-funded collaborative granting programs were rolled out to support the state’s cultural sector, like CT Summer at the Museum that gave free access to over 130 museums for children and a caregiver. In 2021, CT Humanities helped secure an unprecedented $30.7 million investment from the state that created the CT Cultural Fund, which provided critical operating support to over 750 organizations.

Today, CT Humanities funding and programs benefit all 169 towns and cities, five recognized tribes, and countless communities with unique identities and contributions. A commitment to inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) is the overarching guide for all its work, Mancini said. Digital humanities projects like ConnecticutHistory.org and TeachItCT.org expand access for all residents.

Mancini said meaningful partnerships that contribute to the state’s cultural infrastructure are key to the organization’s work, now and in the future, so it can continue to lead the cultural sector as a convener, collaborator, capacity builder, and advocate for equitable funding.

As the country approaches its 250th anniversary in 2026, Mancini has positioned CT Humanities in a leading role for the state’s semiquincentenial commission, America 250 | CT. Among many things, this effort will focus on telling the state’s untold stories – those of enslaved people, Indigenous populations, women, immigrants, and urban dwellers – that haven’t traditionally been part of Connecticut’s historical narrative.

“Every American has an origin story, whether 13,000 years ago or 1776 or 2024,” he said. “It is our collective experience of the past and present that will inform humanities in the future.”

A half century after its founding, CT Humanities is less focused on trying to define the humanities and more on showing how they benefit our society, through initiatives such as CT Sites of Conscience, Museum Makeover, inclusive Social Studies frameworks, Book Voyagers reading program, CT Kid Governor, oral history, and cultural heritage arts projects.

The most humorous and pithy explanation for the humanities he’s seen is a poster from the University of Utah College of Humanities that reads, “Science can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

“With all due respect to science, and our dino-loving friends, we bring intellectual humility to the table. NEH’s founding legislation back in 1964 stated, ‘Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,’” Mancini said. “And wisdom is rooted in the humanities.”

This story by Dana Barcellos-Allen, CT Humanities communications manager, is featured in the June 2024 Summer Issue of CT Explored, a CT Humanities funded partner. 

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