Aleta Staton on Art & the Community

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas is excited to introduce our new year-round Community Engagement Manager. As a part of our dynamic team, the candidate needed to be a hard-working individual who values the diverse arts and culture within our global and local community. The Louise Endel Community Engagement Manager is expected to oversee the design, management, and evaluation of audience engagement programs. They must work to extend the values of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to wider populations and broaden community relationships. The Community Engagement Manager will be instrumental to audience diversification, equity, and inclusion.

Aleta Staton has been an educator for 35 years and has worked in arts administration, business management, and staff supervision. She has previously served Arts & Ideas through project management, artist services and community program development. Her extensive experience with the New Haven community and her artistic and leadership background reflect our organization’s purpose and will promote further community engagement.


Since you’ve been a big part of the festival in past, I’d like to start by asking you what significant memories you have of past festivals that have personally impacted you up to now.

There are many. There are the 12 communities that I got close to to create their visual expressions, from Hamden to West Haven and 10 neighborhoods in New Haven, and some of their expressions of art are still hanging or posted. That meant a lot to them, I know, so it meant a lot to me.

There was a wonderful experience with a group of cyclists. The company was from Austria, but the members, these kids, from all over the EU. They all spoke French, but they had different accents … It just gave me a sense of the global nature of human beings and how we manage to communicate anyway. There were only probably two people in the company that spoke English. I was their artist services person. I had so much fun with those kids; we could barely speak to each other linguistically but we spoke to each other in many different ways.

I used to give tours to visitors from different countries so that they would get to know New Haven, and I love New Haven; I’ve lived in many different neighborhoods here. It was a source of pride for me to take them around and talk about how different communities in New Haven developed and how they’re co-existing today.

Sometimes off-season arts administrators would come to work for the festival, because their seasons were done so they would come and work for the summer to put on programming. That gave us the opportunity to get to know people in other organizations, which was really intense and wonderful. The experience from years past has been really enormous, and with all of the moving around and redesigning that we’ve done internally, and re-staffing, we have become an organization of people that just gets the job done. We help each other, whatever it is. If we need to be ushers today, we’re ushers today. If we need to move the furniture, we move the furniture. That has impacted my outlook on this organization; it has really given me the healthiest outlook in coming back into the organization full-time. We know what the needs are, we plan extensively, and when the unexpected is delivered, we deliver. We make sure that it happens.


How do you feel performing and creating affects the way you view and engage with the art others have created?

It has made me more receptive to art forms that I’m not familiar with. That probably started at Educational Center for the Arts, in an environment that was multi-disciplinary and was not just theater, which is my background. So there was theater, music, multimedia, visual art, dance, writing… Having to get to know those other art forms intimately is something that helped to shape even my approach to creating my own art, and absolutely my approach to being able to see through other lenses.


Were there any disciplines you were unfamiliar with or closed off to before your experience at ECA?

Not really; I was always happy to learn more, especially about visual arts, and the whole art of seeing, and choosing what to see, what to reproduce and what to lift up and what to leave out. The whole concept of white, negative space, and other concepts starting to translate into other disciplines—that’s when I actually started seeing differently and to honor so many different perspectives.


And that strengthens the way you come back to your own vocation.

And it also enhances the possibility of interdisciplinary collaboration, which can be very exciting.


If current events impact the art we create, do you feel that art impacts current events?

Yes. I do. I feel like if we did not have art to reflect current events, then instead of a conversation back and forth—art is very much a communicator—I think that a negative spiral would be extremely possible. Art holds a mirror up to the social existence, up to any and everything that can happen out there. I think it is effective because people do things and say things, and, whether they realize it or not, they get away with things that sometimes art catches and reflects back. Art causes people to think and it checks people. There’s nothing in the world like getting checked! It’s not fun to have to backpedal to explain yourself after you have let off something that you just didn’t think about before you said it or did it, didn’t think it was not okay to do, or it was the status quo, so “why not?" I believe that about art because it’s in your face. If it’s live it can be unpredictable; if it is a constant presence, it’s always a reminder. And if it is responding to something right, it’s a reminder to do it again.


Considering these things that are going on that instigate responses from artists, are there events happening now that you would like to see the New Haven community have a conversation about?

One of the things I love about the New Haven community is that we do respond! There’s always a storytelling event, there’s always a conversation around. One of the things I would like to keep my eye on would be our exploration of ourselves as violent. Ask the questions, are we inherently violent? Why is violence the go-to response for something that can be discussed? Why aren’t we getting better at being nonviolent? What can we do to start to turn that around? There are people in groups who are working on that. This young group, Ice the Beef, I love them; they work on it individually with their instructors and their students Also, they ask the wider community, if you see something that is turning in a negative way, what is your typical response—to pull out your phone and record it, rather than stand up and say “this can’t happen; I don’t wanna be part of a community that does this”. And there are coaches that work one-on-one with students and never get any fanfare, but they’re working on this every day. And so I think that as a community, it folds into the question about gun control and everything. Why is violence still so prevalent between humans? I still think there’s more we can do to get better.


Written by Danae Sawchyn