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Art Without Walls or a Local Zip Code

By Kerri Provost

May 31, 2011

That Brian Cook left Connecticut is not unusual. The media has been fixated on how many people in his generation are moving out of state. Where Cook is unique is that he continues to actively contribute to the arts and culture of Hartford, which is more than some artists do while living just a few blocks over the city line.

If you have been to any venue with a pulse in the last few years, you’ve seen his work.

What also sets him apart is that he rejects the idea of himself as a professional artist, and says he has no ” plans to be one.” The result of this perpetual hobbyist mentality seems to be pure, unpretentious art. There’s no ego getting tied up in the work. There’s no distraction triggered by the schmoozing that frequently takes the place of actual creation. Cook could teach the professionals a thing or to about being earnest and getting a real kick out of one’s work.

As for his artistic background, Cook describes it as an organic process: ” I had an artistic mother and grandmother, and have always enjoyed doodling, writing poetry and sculpting in the sand. [...] About two years ago, having learned to use Photoshop as part of my job with a web startup, I began making flyers for some friends in Sea Tea Improv, Hartford’s beloved comedy troupe. I enjoyed doing it and got some positive feedback, so I tried to get better. I love Hartford, and want to use design for positive social impact. My first foray in this direction was an imaginary metro map for Hartford, with proceeds going toward Connectikids. I see the Hartford Museum [Passport] as a next step in this direction.” During this past snowy winter, when so many schools and businesses were having to shut down for several days due to the stormy weather, La Paloma Sabanera — a small, independent coffee shop — was under particular strain. Many of the shop’s customers are state employees, so even on days when La Paloma Sabanera was open, business would lag if the state closed or dismissed early. The proceeds of a poster Cook created especially for this “third place” would go to the store’s “snowy day fund” to help keep the business afloat.

Now — besides creating posters for events and beloved local coffee shops — Cook is trying to get funding for a project designed to encourage museum attendance by Hartford youth. The Hartford Museum Passports are themselves part art, part bribery. With each museum visit, the passports would be stamped, validating the experience and incentivizing future ones.

The inspiration for this project is twofold. The museum passport itself comes directly from the way that an actual passport serves as a type of diary. Cook says, “I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot, in Asia, Europe and the Caribbean, and always loved the appearance, language and symbolism of passports, and varying aesthetics of stamps from country to country. I actually look at my old passports fairly frequently, remembering visits by the stamps.”

Though he does not say it, a passport signals permission. It says, this is who I am and I can go anywhere. It provides tangible proof that a person can go places beyond his or her imagination.

This is not the first passport-inspired project. One already exists for adults: “The Half Door (Irish pub on Sisson), also has a “Beers of the World” passport, which I’ve completed. There are no stamps, the servers just initial the beers once they’ve been ordered, but I still like the idea of creating a record of a person’s exploration, whether what’s being explored is beer, countries, or museums.”

In a time when so many records are online-only, there is something to be said for tangible documentation.

The inspiration for this particular museum project, though, was derived from Cook’s understanding of what youth on the losing side of the achievement gap are having for cultural experiences. He says, ” I try to follow the country’s education reform narrative, and from that I’ve read a lot about how the so-called achievement gap really manifests itself during summer months, when some parents make it a priority to keep their kids stimulated and learning, and others don’t. I hope the passport is something that gives kids a reason to learn about the history of the area when they maybe wouldn’t otherwise.” He notes that while he has friends who take their children to area museums and cultural events, his “sense is that these opportunities are not available to all children.”

For some, the passport could be the incentive needed to get them to walk through the doors of a museum; for others, they might need some economic assistance. Right now, the passport will not be a free ticket, but it’s something that could be offered in the future. Passport holders can be informed of the avenues that already exist for discounted or free passes, like the day passes that can be borrowed from the library for the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Cook is making a small but significant attempt to address socioeconomic disparities in a city he currently lives hundreds of miles from.

Right now, the Hartford Museum Passport project is still in process. A prototype has been created and Cook is raising funds to produce the actual passports. He is also contacting museums and the schools. At time of publication, ten cultural venues have agreed to participate, which is simply to stamp a passport when the person has finished visiting. Right now, participants include: Butler-McCook House & Garden, Charter Oak Cultural Center, Connecticut Historical Society, Connecticut Science Center, CRRA Trash Museum, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Mark Twain House, Old State House, Real Art Ways, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Some have declined to participate, but none have cited an issue with the project. The reason given by those who have passed up this opportunity is one of logistics– they do not have available staff to do the stamping. As the economy improves, this could change.

Maybe more challenging is the need to get permission from the superintendent for these to be distributed. From my own experience and in discussion with other journalists, the superintendent’s office is the definition of opaque. Cook says that he is still waiting to hear back. This could be an opportunity for interested 7th and 8th grade Hartford school teachers to reach out to Cook.

“My hope is that this passport will do something to help increase the visibility of some under-appreciated institutions in the city,” Cook says. “When I hear people say things like “there’s nothing to do in Hartford,” it makes me think that they’re not really looking and/or those great things are not effectively promoting themselves (and each other).”

While Cook is motivating people to partake in the arts, from creating promotional posters for concerts to his latest youth-centered project, Luis Cotto — when not wearing his City Council t-shirt hat — is trying to make the arts more accessible to the community through his Center Without Walls. This project is also not an entirely novel concept, as Cotto explained that he “worked as a consultant for Broad Park Development Corp. on an initiative called ‘Centro sin Paredes,’ which is a direct Spanish translation.” Cotto says that, “Broad Park’s goal through the CdP initiative was to be the precursor to an eventual Latino Cultural Space at the Lyric Theater.”

In recent months, Mayor Segarra has made it known that he would support the development of a Latino cultural center in what remains of the Lyric Theater. Cotto said that the Centro sin Paredes “focus was programming just on Park Street” which resulted in “random drum circles at El Mercado [a grocery store with food court], Musical Trios in front of the Lyric, Storytelling at the Library and small concerts at SAMA.” Two of Centro sin Paredes largest events were ”an open air music festival of Jose Nogueras (a popular Puerto Rican musician) at the now Bank of Boston parking area and a huge open air festival on Broad Street adjacent to the Trinity sports fields. This ran in conjunction with Trinity College bringing El Gran Combo to the City. [...] Ana Alfaro [...] was the brainchild of Centro sin Paredes and was the biggest proponent for a Cultural Center at the Lyric as a Board Member of Broad Park. She’s now the Producer and Host for a local Latino Issues TV show called El Show de Analeh.”

It sounds like art energy can not be created or destroyed– it just takes other forms.

The Center Without Walls is not merely the same project with an English-language title. Cotto explains that “with CWW the goal is to do anything anywhere,” while “the goal with CSP was to create community momentum to an eventual center that would indeed have walls and a new name.”

Lately, the phrase “emerging art scene” has been used incorrectly to describe both Hartford and Connecticut. Such a statement tells one of two things about its speaker/writer: (1) the person does not know what “emerging” means, or (2) the person has not bothered to either look around or educate himself of the history. Cotto observed, “Due to the adaptive nature of artists and organizations, we’ve seen a lot of ebb and flow throughout the years. [...] The only time regular folk in the City would/could have a cultural experience would be during open air festivals which seemed to be a constant when I was growing up. Those opportunities are few and far between these days.” It’s daft to make like there is no art scene here. There is a steady menu of cultural opportunities every day of the week, but not all are equally accessible to all residents. Even before the economic malaise set in a few years ago, spending $20 for a few hours of entertainment — per person — would have been out of the question for a number of residents who live below the poverty line.

As for what has changed to negatively impact the arts, Cotto suggested that, “Over allocation of police and their overtime along with regressive City policies have quietly killed the ability for small and medium scale positive stuff happen. Currently we’re discussing legislation at the City which would hopefully reverse that trend.” It’s been noted by various politicians that certain cultural events, like parades, have unequally allocated police– particularly, more police have been allocated for the West Indian and Puerto Rican parades than the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“I don’t have want to sound too much like a politician,” Cotto says, “but having the City jump into the support the Arts camp, in the form of our Arts Stimulus Grants, is huge. When you look at what people like Helder [Mira] and Cindy Martinez are able to do because of the grant, it’s very encouraging. One can point to a good number of nice stories that otherwise would not be possible if not for the grants.”

For those who miss out on traditional grants or who find they are too inconsistent, or just don’t cover expenses, alternatives like Kickstarter allow artists to perpetually petition the public for grant money. Instead of sending a proposal before a board or set number of deciders, regular folks can decide if a project is worth funding, mainly through amounts that they determine. If you need to raise $300, maybe ten people pledge $30, or maybe one generous person covers the whole goal amount.

Something Cotto thinks is helping the arts culture right now is actually a someone. He says, “the work of Andres Chaparro at the City’s Office of Cultural Affairs is under appreciated. He has given a voice to artists of color who otherwise are voiceless in the mainstream art cliques of this City.”

As for the Center Without Walls, it has been bringing musicians along with spoken word, visual, and performance artists to the “regular folk in the city” for over a year. It has also raised funds for microgrants. The name “Center Without Walls” implies that all of the art is happening out of doors. In some cases, this is true. Last Saturday, I remembered while taking in a jazz performance that this center not only lacked walls, but it also lacked a ceiling and I lacked sunscreen. Some of the indoor venues used have included the Broad Street Gallery, La Paloma Sabanera, and the Center for Urban & Global Studies. When I asked Cotto about future possible venues, he said he’d use space anywhere. He followed this by saying, “I try to focus on venues outside Downtown because, well, just because. Like downtown needs more stuff. But it’s kinda hard to say no to that great space [the Hollander building] that Hartbeat is using.” To be more specific about the sites he’d prefer, he said “My summer program goals are to have a concert at South Park (Barnard Park) and Baby Pope (Pope Park North). I want to try and secure the St Augustine and St. Justin Basements for HartFEAST dinners and I’d love to find Northend storefronts to do more exhibits. The great thing about street level storefronts is that, even when closed, people can see the work just by walking by. There’s an empty storefront at the five corners area by Love Lane/Garden that I’m salivating over.” He’d “also like to experiment more with the “Without Walls” aspect by doing some radio stuff as well as more internet based art projects.”

Looking at the roster of past events, it’s clear that the majority of artists have been Latinos. This itself should not be surprising, since this ethnic group is the plurality in Hartford. A glance at more established art venues, however, does not follow this pattern. Cotto says, “outside of an always struggling school of the arts (Guakia) there is nothing here that celebrates that community.” At the same time, Cotto says he doesn’t seek out specifically Latino artists for the Center Without Walls.

What’s responsible for this under-representation? “The problem is twofold,” according to Cotto, ” 1) our own crab in a bucket mentality as a community that keeps us from unifying as one for almost any cause and 2) the unspoken understanding between the powers that be in the art world that the small slice of pie left over for the arts funding cannot accommodate the creation of yet another organization. I’m sure that there are arts leaders out there that feel that the token offerings put out by the mainstays are more then enough for us and we should just shut up. Individual artists (not just Latinos…most artists of color) work outside of what’s considered the normal arts stratosphere in this City. Places like Red Rock, La Casona, Barca’s, Zula, etc… have become the beacons of light for most artists of color.” This applies to the visual artists, and not just to musicians, Cotto says: “Arten Cuadros has exhibited in mostly Latin American restaurants.”

What happens to these artists? According to Cotto, they “get used to staying in a certain stratosphere to show their wares. And the gatekeepers don’t tend to hang in those stratospheres [...] at the end of the day, there are few decisions actually made on merit; it’s normally who you know, [...] who’s in your stratosphere. So what you’ll see are a larger and larger percent of a certain folk allowed in.”

If the cliques are not getting their work displayed at Center Without Walls, then who is? “I’m looking for people doing kick ass work that deal with issues of social justice,” Cotto explains. To date, he says, “most of the people I’ve been able to work with have been due to some good karma. The only person I knew [at the start] I would want to exhibit was Victor Pacheco because I’ve seen him truly evolve into an incredible artist from the days when he was just taggin [creating graffiti] on walls. The others are people I’ve admired from afar who I contacted and told them about Hartford, my vision with CWW and asked them if they could come.” He says he does most of his “studio visits” via the internet.

Where could the art culture go next? One thing that Cotto would like to see is for Hartbeat Ensemble to have a permanent performance space, specifically in the Hollander building, which is where they most recently performed Flipside. He says “they are an organization that has proven the ability to work with anyone and everyone without looking at the bottom line ($$$) as the only requisite.”

Cotto said that he’d also “love to clone Virginia at La Paloma [Sabanera]” and is “heartened by her personal commitment to the ideals that we strove for with the original store. She is a treasure.” Since taking over the coffee shop, Virginia has continued to book live music, allow the space to be used for film screenings, and humor those who have wanted to run writing groups or have their organizations’ meetings there.

Cotto says, “on that note…we need more Paloma Sabanera’s: Third Places that don’t require profits as a calculation for success.” Beyond just having them at all, he says, “we need them outside of what’s considered safe in order to fight Hartford’s main issue, which is one of perception. What was Frog Hollow’s perception when my sisters and I started La Paloma in 2004? Not very good. Two years ago it was in the Hartford Advocate as one of the top three neighborhoods in the City. Now you know it wasn’t Frog Hollow [residents] voting, so somebody seems to like the mixture of Paloma, Red Rock and Park Street Restaurants.” For those who are wondering why Frog Hollow did not get voted as one of the top three neighborhoods this year, the reason is because the Hartford Advocate no longer had this as a “best of” category.

Brian Cook and the Center Without Walls are but two examples of how art is happening in Hartford. It already contributes to the economy, provides a type of mutual aid, and expands the consciousness of those who experience it. One need not even look very hard to see it

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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