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Real Art Ways Marks 35 Years and Counting

From A Fledgling Artists Collective To An Enduring Cultural Center In Hartford


October 21, 2010

When it began in a second-floor walkup in 1975, Real Art Ways was an alternative artists' space, a loft for work and exhibitions and just as often experimental music.

Scores of similar artists' collectives may have opened that year across the country in the era of homegrown art and counterculture creativity. But 35 years later, a decade into a new millennium, Real Art Ways remains a vibrant part of Greater Hartford's cultural offerings.

After bouncing from three other downtown addresses, chased away by evictions and development plans, RAW has found permanence at 56 Arbor St. in the city's Parkville neighborhood, with room for sprawling exhibits, a seven-day-a-week art-movie theater, a café and regular performances.

yearlong celebration of its 35th anniversary begins this weekend with the opening of three exhibits; a taping of public radio's "Where We Live"; and a fundraising roast of director Will K. Wilkins, who marks his 20th anniversary at Real Art Ways. The anniversary also coincides with the monthly creative cocktail hour tonight, which really shows what the institution has accomplished in in attracting upward of 500 people to such soirées.

From the start, Real Art Ways has been "an alternative to stodgy museums that only presented the work of dead people," Wilkins says.

But at the same time, it's maintained enough ties to Hartford's corporate sector that funders include the Travelers Foundation, Target, the Aetna Foundation, Lincoln Financial Foundation, United Technologies, the Bank of America Foundation and the Knox Foundation.

The collective has presented the work of many artists who have gone on to bigger things in the contemporary art world, including David Byrne (who had a photo exhibit), Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Pepon Osorio, Mel Chin, Jenny Holzer, Nan Goldin, Judy Chicago, and David Salle, who at the time taught video at the Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford. There were shows, too, by Sol LeWitt, Sue Williams, Louise Bourgeois, Christo, and Roxy Paine, featured in The New York Times last Sunday.

The very early days of Real Art Ways saw performances by Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Glen Branca, Phillip Glass, John Zorn, Allen Ginsberg, Eric Bogosian, Cecil Taylor and John Cage, who had a monthlong residency.

How It All Began

Real Art Ways was the creation of four artists from the University of Hartford's Hartford Art School — Ruth Cutler, Dan Talley, Al Baccili and Stan Sharchal — at a time when a lot of alternative organizations were forming. (That era will be reviewed Nov. 20 in a discussion titled "Compared to What? Discussing Alternativity," the first in a series of talks marking the arts venue's 35th anniversary.

RAW endured mainly through the generosity of landlords, starting with Henry Zachs, who lent a second-floor downtown walkup, next to the old Army and Navy Surplus store on Asylum Street, as its first space. When that block was razed to build CityPlace, the collective moved to a space near the Old State House, until it, too, was razed for redevelopment. A third home, at the former Hartford Wire Works building at Ann and Allyn streets, was also to be cleared for what was proposed to be the biggest skyscraper in New England. It was never built, but Real Art Ways was on the move again.

The collective became a full-fledged arts organization under director Joseph Celli by landing federal grants through the Community Enhancement Through the Arts program, allowing it to hire 11 full-time employees and begin real community outreach.

Wilkins, after joining Real Art Ways about that time, in 1990, helped guide its move to a former typewriter training building on Arbor Street, first in a small gallery space and then, in the mid-'90s, to a larger warehouse space in the rear of the building that has been its home ever since.

Wilkins made a point of connecting with the immediate neighborhood as well as the community at large with shows ranging from "None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists" to last year's contemporary Caribbean art survey "Rockstone and Bootheel," and with 27 public arts projects commissioned throughout Hartford in the past 20 years.

Membership has grown to more than 1,000 and fundraising increased during his tenure. But hard times still intervene, and earlier this year, because of finances, the board let go well-regarded curator Kristina Newman-Scott. It leaves the organization with 10 full-time positions and 11 part-timers.

"Those are tough decisions to make," Wilkins says, "but sometimes it's the difference of an organization surviving or not."

A defining point for Real Art Ways shortly after Wilkins arrived was sending special invitations to the artists whose performance funds were cut by the National Endowment for the Arts — incuding Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and John Fleck. Since then, Real Art Ways has continued to stand out in support of artists who may have been shunned or persecuted politically.

"It was important in the age of the NEA fund cuts that people could see these artists for themselves and make up their own mind," Wilkins says. "Certainly, it never made Real Art Ways a target for scorn or derision or protest in the community."

Wilkins, however, will make himself a target willingly at Friday's fundraising roast.

"When you grow up with eight brothers and sisters, one thing you learn is how to take a punch," he says. Besides, "you have to laugh at yourself. If Hartford had a better sense of humor, it would be better than everyone."

The Real Art Ways 35th Anniversary Kickoff Weekend begins today with a Creative Cocktail Hour featuring Marcus Santos and DJ Mal from 6 to 10 p.m. A live broadcast of WNPR's "Where We Live" is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m. Both are at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford.

A Dinner and Roast of Executive Director Will K. Wilkins, benefiting Real Art Ways' educational programs, is Friday at 7 p.m. at the Pond House in Elizabeth Park.

Three art shows open Saturday at Real Art Ways with Olu Oguibe, Saya Woofalk and Cary Smith. A reception is set from 6 to 8 p.m., with performances.

Information on all events: 860-232-1006 or http://www.realartways.org.

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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