In June 2012, volunteers from the Arts and Culture Commission of Torrington renovated the space with paint and supplies from the city. The gallery's organizers invited 23 artists to display their works over the rest of the summer and fall.
"We had hundreds of visitors," says Judith McElhone, executive director of the gallery. The success led to those three businessmen offering to let the gallery remain at that location rent-free until it could get approval as a nonprofit organization that could accept tax-free donations.
"No one gets paid a red cent," McElhone says, "and that's pretty unusual." She says private money to keep the gallery going is already pouring in, temporarily being channeled through the Torrington Historical Society so donors can get the tax advantages of giving to a nonprofit.
"So many old industrial towns have turned into arts centers, and this one seems well positioned to do the same," McElhone says.
The plan for ARTSPACE-Torrington is to have a different contemporary artist featured each month. West Hartford photographer Robert Calafiore opened the gallery's 2013 season last month with a display of unusual photographs created using a "pinhole" camera without using film negatives or digital technology.
McElhone says none of this would have been possible without a united effort by city officials, local arts folks, and the business community.
The statewide effort to seriously promote urban art got under way about a year ago. Using the title "City Canvas," the project was funded with $1 million from the state and the National Endowment for the Arts. It eventually involved 100 artists and 23 large-scale projects in seven different Connecticut cities including Bridgeport, Waterbury, New London, and Hartford.
Bergstrom says the key to getting it off the ground was convincing Bodell to head up the program. He says she has a unique "ability to find art makers and entrepreneurs in local communities and get them engaged in the storefront revitalization process."
"It's almost like she sneaks it in on them," he laughs. Bergstrom also believes she has a talent for explaining to artists (who normally don't give a damn for traditional, pain-in-the-ass boring business models) how they might actually be able to pay the rent and make a real living out of a storefront gallery.
The reason so many city officials are so whipped up about these galleries is they're "adding all this vitality to the streets" by bringing people into the downtown, Bergstrom says.
Interest in the City Canvas program was so high that it morphed into what is now being called "CreateHereNow." State grants from $5,000 to $100,000 are being handed out for arts projects and programs based on their potential for bringing something new and fresh and exciting to their local community.
So far, 19 Connecticut cities and towns have signed on to the new "CreateHereNow" campaign. Bodell says all those communities have agreed to raise money to match contributions from the state and national funding sources. According to Bergstrom, the combined pledges from those municipalities is something like $2 million.
Connecticut is also a finalist for $600,000 in grants from a consortium of national arts organizations, Bergstrom adds.
Bergstrom says the intent is to fund the program with $2 million a year in state money. Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration is justifying that kind of money (in the middle of a brutal state fiscal crisis) by pointing to a recent study indicating the major economic benefits that spending on the arts and culture bring.
It's easy to understand why local and state officials are so excited about this concept of turning empty, dilapidated storefronts into vibrant galleries filled with color and life. For the creative types, says Bergstrom, "It's the answer to the question, 'How do I stay relevant as an artist?'"
"Our end of the deal is we keep it high caliber, professional and contemporary," says McElhone. "And above all we are accessible."