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For Sale: Hartford Arts Center, Much Loved

Tom Condon

April 06, 2008

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and actually it was. In the 1980s, many of the city's arts groups were in dire need of rehearsal, classroom and office space. Some top corporate and foundation leaders rolled up their sleeves.

With backing from Aetna, United Technologies, The Courant and others, the marvelous Jack Dollard, the architect-artist-activist, turned a former motel and a taxi barn on Farmington Avenue into the Hartford Courant Arts Center. (We at your favorite newspaper put up $500,000, a fourth of the cost. Aetna donated the property, worth $800,000. How that got us the name, I'm still not sure.)

The center, which opened in 1986, was home to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Hartford Ballet and its school, the Hartford Chamber Orchestra and the Connecticut Opera, as well as the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which became the owner of the property.

For a good long time, it worked. The former motel could never be much more than (cramped) office space, but the main building was something else. Dollard and his wife Enid Lynn, director of the ballet school worked magic on the taxi barn, turning it into bright, clean and airy space. The dance studios in particular are beautifully crafted. Dancers have told me it's the best dance facility between New York and Boston, if not New York and Toronto.

The facility became important to the Asylum Hill neighborhood and the city at large; indeed, it launched a number of local youngsters into careers in the arts. Dancers from Hartford have gone on to dance for major companies in New York, London and elsewhere.

Alas, time passes and circumstances change, and now the complex, in need of repair and losing money, is up for sale. Soon the only tenant left will be the opera. The old motel building is nothing special, but the main building is. The dance studios are irreplaceable. It would be splendid to save them, somehow.

The untimely end of the renowned Hartford Ballet in 1999 may now be seen as the beginning of the end, though that wasn't clear at the time. The arts community rallied and replaced the ballet with a new organization, Dance Connecticut, but it too failed after a few years.

Then the Hartt School of the University of Hartford entered the picture. The Hartford Ballet had helped Hartt create its collegiate dance program. Hartt returned the favor, moving its collegiate and community division dance programs, and an opera program, to the Courant Arts Center, keeping the legacy of the ballet school alive.

The school will continue, but in a new location. The university is opening its new Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center in the fall, where it hopes to accommodate all of the dance programs. If that cannot be done, another option would be to move the burgeoning community division a remarkably successful program to the former Hartford College for Women campus on Asylum Avenue. In any event, it no longer makes sense for the university to lease space when it can use space it owns. Let's hope many Hartford youngsters will make their way to the Handel Center on Albany Avenue.

Meanwhile, the symphony has moved, the arts council has moved and the chamber orchestra has joined the Hartford Ballet in arts heaven. Only the Connecticut Opera has yet to find new space. The arts center worked exceedingly well for the opera, and there is hope something can be arranged. The opera is a vital part of the artistic mix.

As each rent-paying tenant has left the Farmington Avenue complex, the arts council has gone further in the hole. The loss of Hartt will push the deficit over $250,000, which, as arts council executive director Ken Kahn says, "is untenable."

So the property is on the market.

It's possible, though unlikely, that another dance company might acquire the property. It is also possible but unlikely that a developer with an artistic bent would buy the site, build something along the street (the main arts building sits well back from the street) and retain the building or some of the studios as an enhancement.

Otherwise, let us note for the record that it was fun while it lasted.

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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