People’s Bank, which is based at 850 Main St. in Bridgeport (above), is among the financial institutions that earmarks community reinvestment funds for the arts.

As regulations increase and banks are continually required to give more of their earnings back to the communities in which they’re based, more and more institutions are turning to the arts as an outlet for their funds.

Today, regulations such as the Community Reinvestment Act require banks to give back to the communities where they are located, but the backing of cultural and artistic endeavors by financial institutions predates such modern notions by centuries.

Funding and endowments from banks earmarked for the patronage of the arts within communities comes in the forms of grants to local museums, sponsorships of exhibits, financial backing to arts and music festivals and the continuous support of art education in local community schools.

New England banks of all sizes are continuing a centuries-old tradition by being active in sponsoring, contributing and funding arts programs ranging from grade school art shows to symphony orchestra concerts.

Barbara Johnson, senior vice president of community relations at Bridgeport-based People’s Bank, explained that the arts take a significant portion of the bank’s reinvestment funds because the arts can help strengthen city economies.

“We have areas of focus for our community reinvestment funds, and our areas are affordable housing, community development and youth development. We feel that the arts are a significant part of community development because they really are the lynchpin of economic development in our center cities,” said Johnson.

She added that 14 percent of the community reinvestment budget, or approximately $300,000, is contributed toward arts and art projects throughout the state.

Regarding the specific areas where money goes, Johnson said that People’s Bank sponsors several theaters in the major metropolitan areas. Those include the Shubert Theater in New Haven, the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts at Rich Forum in Stamford and the Bushnell Theater in Hartford.

“We are also major supporters of the Playhouse on the Green here in Bridgeport, as well as the Barnum Museum,” said Johnson.

People’s also has supported the Warner Theater in Torrington. Once a proud landmark in the small city, the Warner had fallen into disrepair. Over the last few years the theater has been restored to its original beauty, and now provides a base for a thriving downtown arts community.

“It’s a beautiful art deco theater that’s been recently restored. Now it’s playing a major role in economic development for Torrington,” said Johnson. “It’s right in the middle of downtown, and it’s being used by community artists as well as professional performers. There’s a ballet school associated with it, and the arts community is really taking over downtown. It’s just a wonderful story.”

Johnson said that People’s focuses mostly on theaters and theater companies because of their ability to help drive the economy of downtown areas. She remarked that a strong theater can support surrounding businesses such as restaurants, shops and parking garages.

“Theaters really provide a way for other areas to survive,” she said. “Contributions like this are certainly some of the more important that we make, and they’ll continue to be a significant part of our giving back to the community.”

‘The Spiritual Side’

Adding extra flare to the New England arts scene is Sovereign Bank, which supports the arts throughout its New England footprint.

The bank sponsors the Arts at the Arcade in Boston’s City Hall Plaza and is the exclusive sponsor for other Boston-based initiatives such as the New England Aquarium’s Beach Teach Program and the Museum of Science’s new exhibit “Magic! The Science of Illusion.”

Thomas Kennedy, senior vice president and manager of community development for Sovereign Bank New England, said supporting the arts enhances the quality of life in the community.

“We have sponsorships [to the arts] … and we do that because of the quality of life that they address in terms of our overall environment in which we are living. This touches not just the physical side, but addresses the spiritual side of who we are in terms of creativity and fullness, of who we are as individuals in terms of society,” said Kennedy.

Aside from the major museums and exhibits that Sovereign helps fund, the bank also contributes to theater and performing arts groups in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, including the Providence, R.I.-based Providence Ballet and Waterfire in Providence; the Bushnell Museum of Art in Hartford; the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass.; and the Lowell Folk Festival in Lowell, Mass., the largest free annual folk festival in the United States.

Additionally, Sovereign is a supporter of the Sovereign Center for the Performing Arts in Reading, Pa.; the Enduring People exhibit at the Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass.; and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, which is America’s oldest public art museum.

“The economic impact of the arts [in our communities] is a significant contribution. The arts don’t always get the appropriate attention that this deserves as an economic generator of business,” said Kennedy. “We as a corporation feel that this is terribly important from a business perspective, and from a personal one of supporting these efforts that add to the quality of life.”

Kennedy said the bank donates in excess of half a million dollars a year to the arts throughout the Sovereign footprint.

But it is not just the big banks giving away big dollars. Smaller banks also are devoted to their communities, supporting arts at the local level. Georgetown Savings Bank, a $105 million-asset bank based in Georgetown, Mass., provides funding for cultural exhibitions within the Bay State’s Essex County.

Robert Balletto, senior vice president at Georgetown Savings Bank, said supporting community arts projects is important for community and economic development.

Georgetown Savings is a nine-year sponsor of the Georgetown Cultural Council, which hosts an eight-week concert series in the local community park, but Balletto said he hopes the bank will have the ability to contribute more in the future.

“We have been trying to do more patronage to the arts in the recent years. It brings the community together and brings people together for the appreciation of the music and involvement in the community,” said Balletto.

Providing financial support to school-based art programs and renovating abandoned buildings to make way for community theater productions is an important part of community development, according to Balletto.

“I think that we are at a time where there are a lot of budget cuts, and the arts need the support. It’s important from the standpoint of improving the quality of life,” said Balletto. “There is a lot of importance on athletic endeavors, but we want people educated in all ways and not just physically adept. I was an athlete myself, but as I’ve gotten older I can see the advantages of being more well-rounded. This will certainly be part of our focus moving forward. If we can lend the support, I think it makes a better community.”

As with all businesses, budget constraints and economic conditions can limit the ability of banks to sponsor the arts at times, but most bankers today said the importance of finding money in the budget to donate to the arts is important for economic development within the community.

“We’d always like to do more, but you’re restricted by your own budgets,” said Kennedy of Sovereign’s sponsorships and grant giving. “This is always a tremendous challenge for us. The arts community in New England and particularly in Boston have so many people involved, and you always wish you could do more and help more.”