Garde executive director, wife, only second couple ever to receive annual William Crawford Award
Groton - The Garde Arts Center has been synonymous with Steve and Jeanne Sigel for more than two decades, a marriage that, like their own, was simply "meant to be," said Steve's sister, Gabrielle "Gay" Sigel, as the couple were honored Friday at the Mystic Marriott with this year's William Crawford Distinguished Service Award.
Just as Waterford's Sonalysts Inc. thrived for more than three decades under the husband-and-wife team of Muriel and David Hinkle - the only other couple to receive the annual award from the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut - the Sigels, in a very different way, pushed their own vision and came up with other creative ways to adapt to competition, said William Stanley, the chamber's past board chairman.
"The Garde today has not only survived; it's thriving," Stanley said in an interview before the ceremony. "Steve and Jeanne are the heart and soul and conscience of the Garde."
But Gay Sigel, a Chicago attorney, said before the award presentation that her brother's life didn't always appear to be so well-crafted. Back in the 1960s, she said, Steve was the family wild child who, rather than being seen as someone most likely to succeed, would have won nomination as "most likely to live under a bridge."
Steve's father, Leon, remembered that his son nevertheless had a gift for the violin, winning a spot on the Youth Orchestra at the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. But Steve had a knack for aggravating the conductor, once insisting that a C minor symphony was too sad and should be rewritten to a major key.
"The orchestra survived his stay and still functions today," Leon Sigel said in his prepared remarks.
His son went on to try acting, he said, but was deemed too undisciplined, then community organizing, where he infuriated politicians, before moving to arts management, first in San Francisco and then in the Berkshires. He arrived at the Garde 23 years ago as the community was still struggling to launch a regional arts center that could stay solvent.
Tim Bates, a local attorney and previous Crawford Award winner, recalled that Steve Sigel had only one real competitor for the position of executive director at the Garde.
"Steve was younger, he was more talkative and he was cheaper," said Bates, who was chairman of the Garde board at the time. He characterized his prepared remarks - tongue in cheek - as revenge for a roasting he received from Sigel when he won the Crawford Award.
"If he didn't work out, it would not cost us much," Bates said. "If he succeeded, we would benefit, and he would probably go on and move on to bigger and better things. We apparently misjudged significantly his capacity for upward mobility."
They also may have underestimated Sigel's fundraising abilities. As Bates noted in a speech before nearly 500 guests Friday night, many conversations with Sigel are punctuated by a donation request for the Garde.
"That is one reason the Garde has enjoyed the staying power that it has," he said.
Joyce Olson Resnikoff, a longtime local businesswoman who owns the Olde Mistick Village shopping center on Route 27 in Mystic, added another reason. The Sigels, she said in an interview before the dinner, are always willing to experiment by bringing in different kinds of entertainment, including the popular opera series now in its 14th year.
"Jeanne and Steve has created a quality of life for all of us," she said. "We're so fortunate."
Former chamber board chairman Stanley added that the Garde has become a significant driver of the local economy - especially significant for restaurants and pubs in downtown New London.
"The arts are a business, and an important one in our local economy," he said.