Hartford, CT

Contact Name
Will K. Wilkins
Project Dates
1990 - Present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2011
Design, Networking
In July of 1989, recently evicted and teetering on the edge of extinction, Real Art Ways relocated from downtown Hartford into an old industrial building in the Parkville neighborhood, and began to put down roots, and open its doors to the community. We had some funding to commission artists’ projects in a window space, but we no longer had the window. We made the decision to mount public art commissions, and use the creative process to build ties between Real Art Ways and a variety of community organizations. Since 1990, we have originated, commissioned and produced 31 artists’ projects. It was really about making friends, and building allies.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
RAW Specifics addressed key organizational goals that Real Art Ways had set over the years. Inherent in Real Art Ways’ programming is the commitment to attracting and engaging broad and diverse audiences. The desire to “creatively engage and inform audiences and communities,” a central phrase in Real Art Ways’ mission statement, is also the driving force underlying the project. Likewise, audience and community are essential to Real Art Ways' mission – “audiences are valued and included,” Real Art Ways’ work “builds and serves a culturally and economically broad audience,” and that the organization supports contemporary artists by providing “opportunities for a broader creative community.” In addition to these aims, we seek to engage in national and international dialogues about contemporary art, and present excellent work by contemporary artists. Real Art Ways is committed to engaging the public in dialogue and to building community – these goals have been at the heart of RAW Specifics.
Have they changed over time?
The goals have remained essentially the same.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
The particulars of partners and stakeholders vary from project to project.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
Each project is different. Examples help tell the story. In 1994 Pepón Osorio’s En la Barbería no se Llora (No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop) was, simultaneously, an over-the-top evocation of an all-male Puerto Rican barbershop and a warm-hearted challenge to notions of machismo. It was set in an empty storefront in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood in the aftermath of severe and prolonged gang violence. We worked with neighborhood youth organizations to introduce the artists work. At the opening barbers from the neighborhood gave free haircuts, a local band played, there was a live broadcast on Spanish-language radio. Luis Cotto, a Real Art Ways’ employee who staffed the barbershop during the summer, is now a well-respected City Councilman. Another example is Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Blooms project, an installation of four flesh-like gelatin blocks into which hollow-point bullets were fired and then “bloomed” through the material, simulating the effects of flesh punctured by bullet wounds, an injection of social reality into a sleek modernist form. (Both artists received “genius” grants from the MacArthur Foundation after their work with Real Art Ways.) Real Art Ways successfully utilizes public art projects to connect with communities. Another example is artist Mel Chin’s project Ghost. In 1826, Connecticut's first free African American church was constructed on Talcott Street in downtown Hartford. A church stood on that site until the 1950s. The site is now the entrance to an office building and parking garage. Chin re-created the facade of the original church, using a wood frame, plastic mesh, and chalked details. Stairs were constructed using rubble from the recently demolished Society for Savings building on Main Street and the type of iron rod used to hold back highway erosion. At the opening celebration, the choir from Faith Congregational Church, the descendant of the original Talcott Street Church, sang in the space that had been sacred for more than 130 years. Ghost was installed for 6 months in 1991. This project was not about nostalgia. Ghost called into question whether human constructions, such as social, philosophical, and religious structures, can prevent the erosion of our cultures and communities. Ghost was intended as a catalyst for reflections on change. Other examples include three artists’ projects set in our immediate neighborhood of Parkville. In 2000, videographer Liz Miller resided in our neighborhood for four months and created a series of video portraits of eight neighborhood seniors, which were projected in our cinema for several months as segments preceding feature film screenings. In 2002, poet Verandah Porche worked with us for a year, during which she created an extensive and vivid volume of “told poetry” based on intimate conversations with more than 60 neighborhood residents. And in 2003, artist Harrell Fletcher created a video of members of the Parkville Senior Center reciting an affecting passage on mortality from James Joyce’s Ulysses. (This video was selected for the 2004 Whitney Biennial.)
Have they been refined over time?
In 2009, Real Art Ways commissioned, organized and presented four simultaneous, site-specific public art projects in Parkville and Frog Hollow. Satch Hoyt, Matthew Rodriguez, Sofia Maldonado, and Margarida Correia each completed residencies in Hartford, met with leaders from and residents of the neighborhoods, designed and installed their projects, and conducted tours.
What were your major obstacles?
The primary issues we have had in organizing public art commissions have to do with logistics, and really, we wouldn't categorize them as obstacles so much as opportunities.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
These issues really have provided us with a deeper understanding of how to work with the various stakeholders we engage, and how to present work that is meaningful to a broad public.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
We have found that conflicting ideas - from artists, business owners, Real Art Ways staff, city officials, and residents - give rise to good, potent conversations about what the role of art is in our city. That said, funding is, of course, a primary hurdle.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
RAW Specifics has been one program we've organized over the years that has the greatest impact on our sense of place, and how we fit into it.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
As we have evolved into our space and into our neighborhood, the collaborative spirit of RAW Specifics has influenced our work.
Were there unexpected impacts?
We have built off it to think about how we conceive of exhibitions and of marketing - such that programming and publicity and work in community develop in concert with each other and inform each other in significant ways.