Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price has been a long-time advocate of Real Art Ways, so she was happy to sit down with Executive Director Will K. Wilkins to discuss the many ways in which the arts organization is connected to—and an integral part of—the Hartford community.
NAN PRICE: You bring a sense of entrepreneurship to Real Art Ways. How and when did you become involved with the organization?
WILL WILKINS: When I arrived at Real Art Ways 25 years ago, the business model—which had depended heavily upon federal funding—needed to change. The organization didn’t have a history of generating earned revenue to any significant degree, and it also didn’t have a lot of individual support.
Real Art Ways began in 1975 at a time when there was more generous federal funding. It was never intended as an organization that would make money; it wasn’t part of what the organization was doing, and it was able to survive for the first 15 years without needing to do a lot of that.
But when I came in, it was clear that that model for a nonprofit business needed to change. We needed to think creatively about how we could both serve our mission and generate the kind of revenue we needed to survive.
Having an entrepreneurial mindset was important in approaching that and thinking about how we could get more money donated and how we could earn more money.
NAN: Give us a little history and describe your role at Real Art Ways.
WILL: Real Art Ways is a non-profit organization that is 40 years old. The annual budget is $1.2 million. I am the Executive Director, which means I’m the artistic director and I run the business.
We have to balance the budget and ensure the program is balanced and innovative as well. So I have to work in a very analytical way, but also in a more intuitive way. And I try to encourage the people who work here to be as creative as they possibly can be and also to always have an eye on our sustainability.
NAN: What role do you feel that art and innovation have in Hartford?
WILL: Art and innovation by themselves don’t drive the local economy, obviously, but when you look at many of the businesses that could be perceived as more staid, there is considerable innovation that goes on within them.
I think Real Art Ways is a special place because it is a magnet for people who tend to be creative, innovative, and open to new ideas. It’s an organization that is perhaps more worldly than you would typically find in a community of this size.
At the same time, Real Art Ways, with its connection to its neighborhood and to varied communities and its grassroots approach to its work, demonstrates something important: creativity can cut across lines of class, culture, and demographics.
Real Art Ways, since its inception, has been about something different in terms of working with things that are emerging or avant-garde, or more fringe or edgy, not so mainstream. I think that’s part of what makes it surprising to some that Real Art Ways has figured out how to thrive in a region that isn’t known for its fringe.
NAN: As far as the focus on emerging artists, in what ways is Real Art Ways generating business?
WILL: Not everything we do generates box office. Although hopefully everything we do encourages individuals to support us. If Real Art Ways existed just by ticket sales we’d be a very different organization. We couldn’t do what we do.
In terms of the visual arts program and the literary arts program, well, you’re typically not charging people a whole lot to see an exhibition or to hear an author read from their latest book. But hopefully it encourages people to become members. Some supporters come here often, and others maybe never come here, but they like the idea of Real Art Ways and they like the idea that we’re here.
We look at building community, connecting people with each other, and providing social opportunities and opportunities for artists to create new work.
NAN: But as far as launching off any new artists, is Real Art Ways helping artists become recognized and generate business?
WILL: Well, sure. Real Art Ways is an incubator of artists and also careers. It’s a tricky thing because we are presenting people who are not necessarily already well-known. We are often working with people who are in the emerging part of their career.
Many artists who have passed through Real Art Ways have become commercially successful, many are leading productive, creative lives with art at the center. We give people a chance for their work to be seen and their ideas to be explored.
NAN: As far as community, in what ways would you say Real Art Ways is involved?
WILKINS: We can understand the meaning of the word “community” in different ways. One is our immediate neighborhood. We’ve been physically located in the Parkville neighborhood since 1989 and we’ve been involved in neighborhood planning initiatives. We have commissioned a number of important art projects with community partners, including the local senior center. We offer free concerts and art-making for neighborhood kids.
Real Art Ways’ presence is partly responsible for Parkville having recognition that’s greater than before we were here. Have you ever noticed the big “Parkville” sign that goes over the railroad tracks? That was a result of a Real Art Ways-sponsored design competition that involved architects, designers, and neighborhood people as judges.
Real Art Ways is part of the neighborhood. We are not, strictly speaking, what you might think of as a “neighborhood arts organization.” Our scope is bigger than that. But we are a good neighbor.
And we are part of the broader community. We have a role in the city of Hartford, in the Greater Hartford region, and we also play a role in national organizations.
Real Art Ways is a place where a lot of different people can feel welcome and comfortable.
NAN: Let’s talk about Hartford as a whole. What do you think is the best thing about being in the Greater Hartford area?
WILL: I like the fact that there is a range of people here, people from so many backgrounds. That connection to a bigger world is an important part of what draws people to cities. There is more potential in Hartford than there has been at any other time since I’ve been here.
NAN: Do you feel like it’s building?
WILL: In certain ways it is. There are some wonderful people here who are really committed to Hartford as a place.
It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out over the next five or six years with all the residential stuff going on in the downtown area and UConn going in. I think that area has the potential to become transformed into something different.
NAN: Real Art Ways has been around for 40 years and you’ve been involved with the organization for 25. Obviously there’s a reason—and obviously something is working well. So, what is making Real Art Ways a success?
WILL: I can’t imagine what Hartford would be like if Real Art Ways wasn’t here. But the truth is, Hartford almost lost Real Art Ways. When I was hired and came in in 1990, Real Art Ways was in serious peril. Within the first weeks of my arrival I had to lay off almost everybody who was working here because the money to pay them just wasn’t there. It was grim.
NAN: And how did it build back up?
WILL: We built Real Art Ways back up because, first of all, it had a 15-year history at that point, so I wasn’t coming into something that was brand-new saying, “Trust me, believe in me, this is going to work.” I was coming into a situation that had been successful and I was able to say, “I think we can turn this thing around and keep it successful.”
There were already existing relationships with important funders. Arts funding used to be handled differently and there was a recognition on the part of federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts that organizations that were promoting innovation and promoting new artists should be held to a different set of criteria than organizations that were more mainstream and were generating a lot of earned revenue. So there was money that was available to do things in a different, more alternative kind of way.
NAN: Can you expand on that a little?
WILL: Real Art Ways was founded in a moment in which the notion of “alternativity” had spread across the country, and that was reflected in various social institutions: alternative newspapers, alternative schools, alternative approaches to healthcare and food. Real Art Ways, like other alternative spaces of a similar vintage, is one of the many manifestations of that alternative moment.
Real Art Ways has always has been able to survive and thrive primarily because it was founded in that moment. If I had come here 1990 and Real Art Ways didn’t exist and I said, “I want to create this new thing,” it would have been impossible.
So, going back to your question about how it built back up, number one, it already existed and it came out of that alternative moment. Number two, Hartford is graced with some significant philanthropic people, including Henry Zachs, who helped give Real Art Ways its first home.
Then there are other contributors, such as the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which is a very important community foundation. It’s one of the top 10 community foundations in the country. There is the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which is like a United Way for the arts. Many communities don’t have something like that. And the state of Connecticut has been very supportive.
Hartford has also had wealth, and that is reflected in foundations. And you’ve got corporations, some of which are very enlightened and generous in terms of their desire to make their communities more livable and attractive to employees and their families.
The last part is, when I started working here, Real Art Ways had very few individual supporters, maybe 20. We now have more than 1,500 households that contribute, and that’s been built step by step by encouraging people that if they think Real Art Ways is a good idea they should become a member.
I don’t believe there is another alternative arts organization in the country that comes close to that level of individual support. So it’s the generosity and foresight of people, the generosity of companies, and the commitment of the government. People’s generosity has put Real Art Ways be in a position to thrive. We are very grateful for that.