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Hartford Arts Scene: Let's Take It To The Next Level

Rick Green

November 27, 2009

Worcester, of all the has-been cities, is beating us.

I picked this up the other night at Real Art Ways in Hartford, where arts community leaders were gathering to talk about whether the creativity that's already here can make Hartford a more vital place.

New York, Boston and even Providence I'll give you. But we've got more museums, art organizations and regional theaters than Worcester, which I'd like to believe is only an exit off I-290.

The painful truth is that Worcester has already put in the hard work to back up its boastful "Creative City" name, linking the community's creative residents and urban innovators with economic development and growth.

Earlier this year, Worcester made the top 10 in the Forbes magazine list of most livable cities. One small reason why: There's an easy-to-navigate city website where you can learn about everything from micro-loans to good coffee shops to buying a starter home to filming a movie.

Yet, at Real Art Ways I was intrigued with the argument community leaders in Hartford were making: Could we be on the cusp of a new creative era here when things that people already are doing become as important, say, as building a big expensive "science center"?

Public radio's "Where We Live" was there, too, taping a show in which host John Dankosky asked, "How can Hartford become a place where innovative and creative risk-taking are valued?"

That's when the Worcester success story came up.

"We just see all these places re-branding themselves and talking about ways to bring creativity to cities," Dankosky said. "It seems as though that level of conversation is not happening here."

Real Art Ways director Will K. Wilkins who has been around for two decades of local ups and downs told me it's time to talk more publicly about what is happening.

"There's a lot more going on here than at any other time I've been here," Wilkins said.

"In 1990, when I came here, there were thousands of people being laid off. The banks were dying. People were heading for the exits as fast as they could. Now we are in the process of weathering the greatest recession since the Great Depression."

Wilkins says Real Art Ways is more vigorous than ever, with its regular creative cocktail parties jammed, a successful public art project earlier this year at locations across the city, and programs for senior citizens, to point to a few examples.

I brought these questions about arts-fueled revival to Steve Campo, founder of TheaterWorks and who pretty much defines arts-as-economic development. His shoestring theater in its own building on Pearl Street draws thousands into the city, while providing space for other arts organizations. It reopened as City Arts on Pearl earlier this year in what Campo calls a "new epicenter" for the arts in Hartford.

A city native, Campo told me he's tired of the discussions about whether it's the right moment in Hartford. Right now, he said, he is worried about dramatic reductions in state aid and private donations.

"Is this an especially good time that offers special opportunity? No," Campo said. "We just went way the hell out on a limb."

Which is essentially what Hartford's chief operating officer, David Panagore a bureaucrat who believes in the arts! told me what must happen if Hartford is going to take advantage of its oversupply of arts organizations and actually do something.

He pointed to the city's plan of conservation and development, now under discussion, and the Bushnell's iQuilt project, which would knit together the city's cultural institutions with biking and walking routes.

"When you look at revitalization of cities," Panagore said, "what is it that cities do well that suburbs don't? They are a place where the arts happen."

Yes, Worcester is beating us. But something could also happen right here.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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