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Former Hartford Arts Center Needs An 'Angel'

MIKE MCGARRY

December 06, 2009

If there's a company, foundation or family that is in looking to make a meaningful holiday gift, even in this tough economy, Hartford has a shovel-ready opportunity. This one would bring neighborhood improvement, economic development and support for the arts, plus be a big billboard for the donor.

And, it would save a city asset from becoming another parking lot.

The opportunity is the old Hartford Courant Arts Center on Farmington Avenue, near Aetna and the Lincoln Culinary Center. It is a former taxi garage that was converted in the 1980s by the Greater Hartford Arts Council to outstanding rehearsal space. The dance studios are said to be the best between New York and Boston. I'm told that some local arts organizations need such great open space with the green rooms, lockers, bathrooms, etc to get shows ready, train students, mingle and stretch affordably.

The arts council was going to sell the center, but for a number of reasons has decided to keep it and try to make a go of it. It is an irreplaceable asset. But if enough paying tenants, or benefactors, cannot be located very soon, the building will go back on the block.

My interest comes from the community garden behind the center. For over 20 years, while growing flowers and vegetables for families, friends and food banks, we gardeners enjoyed watching the ballerina butterflies dance to the back door.

However, we sadly said goodbye to the Hartford Ballet, the Hartford Symphony and the Connecticut Opera. When the University of Hartford Hartt School went to its new home, taking its community dance program with it, a certain glow was lost to our days in the garden.

Our garden actually had a role in the arts center. We provided the parking needed to make the building viable, courtesy of a deal was cut by Ken Kahn of the arts council and Jack Hale of the Knox Parks Foundation. Both men have moved on, but the current leaders of both organizations would be amenable to another such agreement. Ken Kahn and his wife, Anne, even became community gardeners at our Niles Street haven.

The arts center's original model was faulty, relying on financially stressed arts organizations to pay rent when it was a huge challenge for them to say in business. A better business model might be solid office tenants as well as arts groups and a per-event floor rental approach, the way schools rent hockey rinks, in which various groups would use the space for the time they needed it, whatever the time or day of the week. Could the school system use it? Could companies hold certain functions there?

All that said, the space still needs an angel to supplement rental income. The building needs proper security, ongoing maintenance, inside and out, and full-time management.

Maybe, the city finds state or federal funds to fix the roof and paint the walls. Maybe a union steps up and fixes wiring or carpentry. And maybe a family with an arts heritage wants a living legacy.

So give the Arts Council a call. We miss our ballet butterflies, and don't want to see the space turned into another treeless, soulless parking lot.

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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