Building a community arts resource

New NextStage executive director wants to create a different kind of entertainment venue for Putney

PUTNEY — The Next Stage Arts Project, housed in the former United Church of Putney building, has been organizing arts-based community events since its founding in 2011.

Now, thanks to a generous grant from the Boston-based Fresh Sound Foundation, the board has selected Westminster West resident Maria Basescu as its new executive director in charge of operations, promotion, and development.

Fresh Sound Foundation is committed to building healthy communities through the arts, education, the environment and sustainable economic development.

Two years ago, community members Billy Straus, Eric Bass, Barry Stockwell, Chip Greenberg, and John Burt came together with the Putney Historical Society to brainstorm ways to maintain the historic 19th century church building.

From that effort, Next Stage Arts Project was born, and the brief period since its inception has seen a remarkable amount of programming ranging from rock, jazz, and blues concerts, to film series involving a rich variety of collaborators.

“[Many Putney residents] feel so lucky that they can just go out and be in the community to see a movie and connect with people,” Basescu says.

With a capacity of approximately 160, the space isn't large, but Next Stage has the advantage of not having to always be in “sellout mode,” as Basescu calls it; the board is more concerned about providing programming important to the community.

One of the organization's primary concerns is to make Putney into a “destination,” she says.

“We're interested in pumping vitality into local businesses and enhancing the economic as well as cultural fabric of Putney,” says Basescu. “Thirty percent of the audiences who come to our events come from outside of Putney. We're trying to pull [audiences] from northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And it's all about collaboration.”

In addition to contributions from local artists, the Putney community has turned out to support Next Stage's efforts organizationally and its restoration of the historical building in which it holds events.

“The board realized that we needed to sustain this project, so we had to get organized and bring in professional leadership,” Basescu says.

So they started applying for grants. These funds, combined with generous donations from the community, have allowed Next Stage to hire several full-time staff members, including Basescu as executive director.

Basescu said her field experience serving on the board of Next Stage for the past year has prepared her for her new leadership role.

She says that graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in sociology has informed the rest of her career.

“What makes people tick has always interested me,” Basescu says. “I try to understand how social events happen through a convergence of people and how the group experiences things together.”

And Basescu certainly has a wealth of leadership experience. Her resume includes:

• Service with Boston Mayor Tom Menino's office of business and cultural development.

• Director of public relations for the Emerson College Division of Performing Arts.

• Director of marketing at Marlboro College.

• Vice president of communications and external affairs at Brattleboro Retreat.

• Vice president of external affairs at Northern Berkshire Healthcare;

• Senior advisor at Denterlein, a strategic communications firm based in Boston, with which she continues to be affiliated.

Despite the divergent fields through which her career has bloomed, Basescu says there is a common thread.

“As a youngest child I have been very concerned about how to bring everyone together,” she says. “It's always about connecting to your audience and adjusting to that, and in that regard the skills are the same for arts and health care and education.”

Though she has worked in larger cities, she has always aspired to continue her career in southern Vermont. Before she moved to Putney in 1991, she would come up to visit friends, and “more and more I was feeling bummed out when I had to leave,“ she says.

Her various positions since then have necessitated her frequent travel around the region, and despite the difficulties of being separated from her three now-teenaged children, she says the sacrifice has been worthwhile.

“At numerous points [my travels] have recommitted me to how much I love living here,” she says.

With Basescu at the helm of the “like-minded” board of Next Stage Arts Project, the organization will undoubtedly be one that consistently puts the needs of its community first, an essential method for overcoming larger social woes.

“If we don't have strong local communities, there's no way in my mind we'll be able to tackle the huge overwhelming global challenges,” she says.

As Basescu and the other board members transition into their new roles, they will focus on what's next for the programming of Next Stage Arts Project.

They say they envision more collaboration with local artists and artisans, such as the current month-long film series “Film with Taste” created by Putney resident and executive chef Marty Brennan-Sawyer.

Next Stage Arts Project also hopes to bring more theater productions to the stage and is laying the groundwork for that now.

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