It used to be sort of an artistic guerilla movement:
Find an empty urban storefront, take it over (with or without the owner's permission), show the public your latest funky inspiration and create some excitement and color to liven up a sad city landscape. And when it was over, move on.
Except that's not how it's happening right now in Connecticut. State and local arts gurus are rounding up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to turn storefront galleries into a network of economic development triggers.
"Artist takeovers of storefronts is not a new story," says Margaret Bodell, one of the earliest of those guerilla arts pioneers. Bodell was setting up urban storefront galleries as far back as the 1980s in New Haven.
Now, she's working with the state, municipalities, local arts councils and urban property owners to institutionalize the whole process of bringing art out of the studio and into the streets. The "cool story," she insists, is this new partnership between artists and the establishment that can help bring life back to Connecticut's cities.
Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, argues that turning vacant storefronts into art galleries can help create the "critical mass" that's needed to bring moribund urban centers alive again.
"It works," insists Bergstrom. "It's a proven formula."
That formula is being tried in big cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis, Tenn., and in small post-industrial communities like North Adams, Mass., and Torrington, Conn.
What's different about the new campaign going on in Connecticut is the idea of connecting gallery projects in 19 participating communities across the state and hooking them up with solid, permanent support from local sponsors and municipal officials.
"It's never been done statewide like this before," Bodell says, "so Connecticut will be the model for other states."
"The plan is to take the storefront [gallery] idea and put it on steroids," says Bergstrom. "What is different is the intentional fomenting of it."
In some ways, New Haven's "Project Storefronts" was the pathfinder for Connecticut's efforts to match art with urban redevelopment. The campaign got started in May 2010 with Bodell as its director and backing from New Haven's Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism, with the goal of hooking up owners of vacant storefronts with arts organizations and creative types.
Project Storefronts got a big boost in 2011 with a $100,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. One of the highlights of the campaign was "Studio 756," at 756 Chapel St., which showcased various artistic projects and offered cool stuff like jewelry workshops and weekly information sessions.
The New Haven program served as a model for what state officials are now attempting in cities all across Connecticut, and they recruited Bodell to head up the "CreateHereNow" effort.
Last month, Bridgeport was named as the first site for the state's new program, and local arts officials were asking the city's creative types to start coming up with ideas for locations in the city's downtown. "This is a groundbreaking opportunity for participants to be part of a creative expansion of downtown Bridgeport's future activities hub," says Eve Liptak, the city's project manager for the program.
The first of those new galleries is called "Made In Bridgeport" and is located in an old department store known as the Read Building that has its entry on John Street. Robin Gilmore is running the cooperative gallery that features jewelry, furniture, "urban artifacts, salvaged hardware and vintage treasures" that focus on the city's industrial past.
Hartford just got a $100,000 state grant under the program. According to Kristina Newman-Scott, city officials are hoping to open at least four storefront arts or cultural locations, possibly as early as May. Newman-Scott is the city's director of marketing, events and cultural affairs.
She says the city is looking at spots on Main Street, Pratt Street and Pearl Street, hoping to create at least one storefront that can serve as a retail store where people can buy the stuff being made by local artists.
The building at the corner of Main and Water Streets in downtown Torrington belonged decades ago to the Singer Sewing Machine Co. In recent years, the vacant storefront was used by a local business for storage, becoming one more dull and lifeless symbol of the decline of urban Connecticut.
Then the property was bought by three local businessmen (Steven Roth, David Bender and Steven Temkin) intent on bringing downtown Torrington back. With their support and that of local arts folks, the idea of turning the storefront into an art gallery caught fire.
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."