Dollie McLean

Dollie McLean
"If we’re good people, it transcends and touches others."
- Dollie McLean

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1936

Inducted: 2003

Town: Hartford

At a very young age, Clarice “Dollie” McLean found herself enchanted. Living in New York, the arts were right at her fingertips and when she was just five, her aunt began taking her to see plays and performances. McLean fell in love with the power of dance and decided that she wanted to become a performer when she grew up. Years later, McLean found that her niche in the arts was actually behind-the-scenes, and it was here that she has inspired others. McLean marries creative expression with altruism and her efforts, which lead her to co-found the Artists Collective in Hartford in the early 1970s, continue to inspire people in Connecticut and beyond.

Shortly after McLean fell in love with dance, she pursued dance scholarships and found herself presented with multiple opportunities. She studied at the Katherine Dunham School of Dance. She danced with the New Dance Group under Haitian Master Jon Leone Destine, the father of African Dance in America; Asadata Defora; and Martha Graham. McLean was also affiliated with a number of other outstanding dance companies in New York City. Later, she pursued a career in theater and was accepted into the famed Negro Ensemble Company. She appeared in many off-Broadway productions as a dancer and actress before moving to Hartford, Conn., in 1971 to serve the Wadsworth Atheneum as a community liaison.

In Hartford, McLean’s desire to pay homage to African American culture and educate her community really took off.  She actively promoted the Wadsworth’s services to the state’s underserved African American and Puerto Rican populations and helped to develop programming that would attract these audiences. Thanks, in part, to many of her appeals, the Wadsworth’s collection became more inclusive of some of history’s most recognized African American artists. It was during these years in the early 70s that McLean and her husband, the renowned alto saxophonist, composer and educator Jackie McLean, with the help of three other local artists, co-founded the Artists Collective. The Collective incorporated in 1972, and today is revered as the state’s premier multi-arts cultural institution, emphasizing the arts and culture of the African Diaspora.

In 1984, under McLean’s direction, the Collective began a capital campaign to construct a new, 40,000 square foot state-of-the-art multi-arts cultural center that included practice studios, dance studios, a library, small store, administrative and faculty offices, and a multi-purpose theater space for special events and presentations. McLean successfully raised over $8 million and reached an 80% hiring rate of minority subcontractors and City of Hartford residents. The cultural center, which has been designated as the economic development anchor of the revitalization of the Albany Avenue area, opened in 1999.

Since its inception, the Collective has had a clear vision: “To create a safe haven for at-risk youth.” The Collective has a lot of youth constituents who come to the space to express themselves in the media of their choice. Not only do they become more connected with their culture and heritage, but they also keep themselves distracted from many of the pressures facing Hartford’s youth. McLean has noted that she wants the Collective to be a positive influence on the community and its youth and works tirelessly to fulfill its mission. The Artists Collective serves more than 1200 Hartford-area students each year, providing essential arts exposure to often underserved populations.

McLean’s efforts through the Artists Collective have not gone unnoticed. The Collective was mentioned in President Clinton’s 1996 report for the Committee on the Arts and Humanities as an organization for at-risk youth. In 2004, McLean received the Urban League Community Service Award and the Collective became one of the first organizations in Connecticut to be honored with the Bank of America Neighborhood Excellence Neighborhood Builder Award. In 2006, Women Organizing, Mobilizing, and Building honored McLean with its Destiny Encouragement Award and, in 2007, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from The University of Hartford. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama awarded the Artists Collective a national distinction for its work serving Hartford’s youth in conjunction with the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Dollie McLean continues to serve the youth of Hartford as Executive Director of the Artists Collective, combining her love for the arts with her desire to make a positive impact on her community.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice

Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”

A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.

Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.

Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.

A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.

Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent.  Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.

The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.