Guilford Art Center: Post-Pandemic Resurgence Driving Demand, Support for Arts

Artistic pursuits are becoming increasingly popular in the post-pandemic world and the Guilford Art Center is responding with more opportunities for local residents to be creative.

Opening reception at the Guilford Art Center for the Teen Art Club exhibition in May 2023. Photo: Ashley Seneco.

As an art historian, Maureen Belden, executive director of the Guilford Art Center, hopes history doesn’t repeat itself. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, her organization saw classes go virtual, its gallery close temporarily, and its largest fundraiser – the summer craft expo on the town green – cancelled. Even as restrictions lifted that fall, the center’s in-person classes allowed only fifty percent capacity – a lingering financial hit for an organization that’s heavily dependent upon tuition fees for roughly eighty percent of its operating budget. “The funding for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (CFGNH) to support general operations was critical to keep us whole,” Belden said.

These days, the picture of life at the Guilford Art Center – which was founded in 1967 – is a bit rosier. Enrollment is up for most classes; and some, like ceramics, even command a waiting list. In part Belden, who has led the organization since 2013, credits the mental strain and social isolation of the pandemic with fueling greater interest in the arts.

“The pandemic made people realize what’s really important to them,” Belden said. “People who always wanted to learn pottery-making or how to paint are making the time in their lives to do that.” In particular, enrollment among youth -- traditionally a challenging demographic to capture – has seen significant growth. “After kids were so impacted by lockdowns, being able to make art together and having a sense of a creative community is helpful,” Belden said.

In 2023, the Art Center collaborated with about twenty Guilford High School students to establish the Teen Art Club to expose adolescents to a variety of artistic media, including ceramics, painting, jewelry making and weaving. “Our Center has become a place of belonging that’s neither school nor home,” Belden said. “We have classes for all ages and abilities,” Belden said. “And across a number of different art and craft media.”

The facility features six classrooms for arts programming – including a recently expanded space for ceramics and a blacksmith forge. It also features a gallery that presents rotating exhibits of contemporary art and craft. Additionally, the gallery serves as a venue for a number of community arts organizations and is free to the public.

With support from The Community Foundation, the Center has also started to provide more free programming in partnership with other local nonprofits to make the arts accessible to all. The organization also offers tuition assistance.

One of the organization’s biggest challenges, Belden says, is helping people to rethink their definition of an artist. “We often hear people say, ‘I’m not an artist’,” Belden said. “But it’s not only about the product, it’s also about the process of working with your hands, head and heart to express yourself; arts are for everybody.”

It’s not just art hobbyists that the Guilford Art Center is helping. The annual summer craft expo and the holiday expo, supported by dozens of volunteers, each support hundreds of professional artists from across the country by showcasing their work. Proceeds from both events benefit visiting artists and the educational and community programs at the Center.

For Belden, the most valuable role her arts center plays is creating an emotional impact. “It’s rewarding to see how meaningful the arts can be to people and how happy they make them,” she said.