As the drizzle subsided on an early Saturday evening in late September, a little nonprofit cultural center in Stonington Borough hosted an event with one world-renowned chef.
Jacques Pepin, the charismatic French chef, author and television host, sat at the front of the room with his equally vibrant 13-year-old granddaughter, Shorey, for a discussion on Pepin’s latest cookbook, “A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey.”
Pepin and Shorey have an easy banter and delighted the audience at the La Grua Center, which appeared to fill the 100 seats in its Great Room along with the 49 in the mezzanine.
Pepin’s appearance marked a triumph for the center as it seeks to expand upon its name recognition, and grow compelling programs in addition to its usual offerings of intimate musical performances, lecture series, classes and art exhibitions. Founded in 2007, the center’s story is one of evolution.
Its full name is the Maurice C. La Grua Center, in honor of well-known Stonington photographer “Maurie” La Grua. His widow, Winifred, funded the purchase and renovation of the old foundry building that was part of the Atwood Machine Company. Construction was completed in September 2008.
For much of its existence, the center has served a mission as a venue for arts, education, meetings, social occasions and other community activities. Many of its offerings are free or very low cost.
But there’s something special about this space. Walk in, and the elegant masonry makes an immediate impression, as the building opens to vaulted ceilings and natural light streaming through its long windows. The acoustics are dreamy for ensemble performances; the lighting is soft and complementary to artwork and photos.
And the location. La Grua is situated among the beautiful, tree-lined streets of historic Stonington Borough, just steps away from Stonington Harbor and a seaside public access walkway with sweeping views of water and sky. Acclaimed restaurants, eclectic shops and other cultural sites of interest are all within a few minutes’ drive.
“We have somewhat of a distinctive space,” said Lori Robishaw, the center’s executive director. “We’re on the edge of a county and the edge of the state. … It’s not that terribly far from other places.”
La Grua could draw from well beyond the Borough’s borders, capitalizing on a region of the state that is rich with cultural offerings. The center is a 45-minute drive from southern Rhode Island, and just over an hour from the northeast Connecticut corner. And certainly visitors, once they step through the doors, fall in love.
Yet not many people are aware of the diverse offerings at La Grua, so Robishaw’s and the board’s mission is to spread the word.
“’Hidden gem’ is a nice phrase,” Robishaw says when asked about the center and its updated mission.
During the Pepin event, about a third of the audience raised their hands when asked who was visiting the center for the first time. They included locals and out-of-staters, Pepin fans and non-chefs alike.
The center is “a growth trajectory,” Robishaw explained. Over the years the staff has grown from an all-volunteer crew, to part-time staff and now full-time staff.
Winifred's gift and local donations helped launch the center, which offered free events in its early days to get people through its doors. Programming then moved to a suggested donation format, and has recently added some modest admission fees for performance events and bigger names.
“But we want to be accessible to everyone, so most of the performances are $10 or $15,” Robishaw said.
The center has an annual fundraising appeal “like every nonprofit,” Robishaw said, and an anonymous donor is helping to match donations placed in the donation box at events where there is a suggested donation. La Grua is also seeking business and individual sponsors.
Robishaw has been with the center since July of 2016. The story of how she landed here is a colorful one involving some ping-ponging between Ohio and Connecticut, career stops around the country, and a few Revolutionary War ties as well.
Robishaw’s ancestors include Thomas Leffingwell, one of the founders of Norwich, and Christopher Leffingwell, a businessman whose son, also named Christopher, moved from Norwich to Ohio.
Hence, Robishaw hails from northeastern Ohio with ancestral ties to eastern Connecticut.
She forged her own connections here when she attended graduate school at the Yale School of Drama and met department chairman George White, founder of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference.
Robishaw spent six summers in Waterford, three doing media relations and three running the National Playwrights Conference.
She wound up back home in Ohio, and it would be another 20 years before Robishaw returned to Connecticut. In between, her career took her to New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
In 2011, Robishaw’s job at Ohio State University was eliminated during restructuring. She came back to Connecticut, where she worked for 2 1/2 years doing consulting work that contributed to the eventual formation of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition.
She returned to Ohio to be with her dying father, during which time she also ran the Ashtabula Arts Center, where Robishaw had gotten her start in community theater.
By 2016, she was drawn back to Connecticut.
“Once my parents were gone, (Ohio) was really not the place for me to live out the rest of my life,” she said. “I had always continued my online subscription to The Day and came back to Connecticut every summer on vacation. I just kept my eye open.”
The position at La Grua was a natural fit, and Robishaw saw the center’s potential to expand upon its contributions to the area’s economy, tourism, and quality of life.
The La Grua Center was one of 70 local nonprofit arts and cultural organizations that responded to a national economic impact study conducted in 2015 called Arts & Economic Prosperity 5.
The research study was conducted by Americans for the Arts. It is the fifth study over the past 20 years to measure the impact of arts spending on local jobs, income paid to local residents, and revenue generated to local and state governments.
In October, the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, one of 341 study partners nationwide, released the local results (http://culturesect.org/aep5/). This marked the first time that southeastern Connecticut was represented in the national economic impact study, and the region shined.
The area yielded $168 million in economic impact, as measured by full-time equivalent jobs, resident household income, and revenues to state and local governments. Southeastern Connecticut’s economic impact figure alone was higher than Maine’s, Delaware’s or Vermont’s in their entirety.
The nonprofit arts and culture sector supports 4,460 full-time equivalent jobs and generates $10.5 million in local and state government revenue, according to the coalition.
Not including event admissions, attendees in southeastern Connecticut spent an average of $25.77 per event, on expenditures like dining and parking. The national average is $31.77.
“I see the La Grua Center in that mix,” Robishaw said of the center’s contribution and visions for growth. “This was an opportunity for me to come back to this region I loved so very much and to play my small part.”
The La Grua Center currently presents about five to seven events a month and also serves as a community space during the day and some nights for diverse offerings: wellness, fitness, art, and group events.
Locals gather for yoga or strengthening sessions, talks on Medicaid or even a tarot, meditation and pendulum class.
There is a regular “Music Matters” series and Traditional West African Dance classes, as well as a lecture series on a wide range of topics.
Upcoming spring highlights include Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon on March 3 and noted photographer Rachel Brown who has photographed Ireland and had her work widely published.
In April, the center is hosting its annual Art in Autism Exhibit, featuring works of art by people of all ages who are affected by autism. And mark the calendar for June 23, as summer kicks off with a day of free concerts during the Stonington Sounds Summer Music Festival.
For more information and a calendar of events, visit lagruacenter.org, call (860) 535-2300, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. La Grua Center is located at 32 Water St., Stonington, CT 06378. You can follow the center’s activities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.