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August 11, 2014 SUMMER SERIES: HARTFORD IN 2024

Arts, culture venues prep for Hartford’s resurgence

Rendering and photo | Contributed The Bushnell has its sights set on redevelopment of its surrounding neighborhood including pedestrian-friendly upgrades to its entrance.
David Fay, CEO, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
Susan Talbott, Executive Director, Wadsworth Atheneum

At Wadsworth Atheneum on Main Street, Executive Director Susan Talbott can finally see the finish line on a $33 million renovation that's taken years to complete and received $25 million in backing from two governors' administrations.

The timing — with Front Street's resurgence and UConn's downtown campus set to open nearby in just a few years — is nearly perfect, though not intentional.

“It's a wonderful confluence of events,” Talbott said. “There's health and vitality to look forward to in Hartford.”

The art museum plans to reopen next year 26 refurbished galleries and seven public spaces totaling approximately 16,000 square feet.

The new space, most of which has been closed to the public for more than five years, will allow for larger temporary and permanent exhibits, including traveling displays that bring the museum outside revenue. Talbott thinks attendance will also rise.

“We're expecting many more people to come in,” she said. “We're expecting a real increase on every level.”

The Atheneum and the rest of Hartford's arts and culture venues hope the city's resurgence breeds fresh, new followers, particularly young professionals who will take up residence downtown as more apartments come online in the coming years.

“For all of us, the biggest challenge we face is financial,” Talbott said. “Despite that, many of the core organizations in Hartford are going through periods of growth and optimism.”

At The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, CEO David Fay said a continued economic recovery and a growing downtown population are the most important keys to the success of the downtown arts scene.

“If we see good solid growth, that would be the best thing in the world,” Fay said.

But Fay and his team aren't just sitting around hoping that happens. They've been probing new revenue streams for some time, launching a venue management subsidiary and a Broadway development and production company with several partners. More recently, a management contract with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra has opened up the potential for a talent management business, Fay said.

“So rather than just putting blinders on and saying 'hey, we put shows on a stage and that's it,' we say 'we put shows on a stage and that's one piece of what we do,'” he said.

Fay was quick to note that Bushnell isn't alone in taking a risk on different business models, citing Hartford Stage's investment in its recent Tony Award-winning Broadway production “A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.”

Fay also has his eye on surrounding real estate, and even hopes to partner with a developer on branding a mixed-use property. If things go as he envisions, the neighborhood around the Bushnell — full of government buildings and parking lots — will have many more apartments in a decade.

“This side of the park, and the properties immediately adjacent to the park, scream out to be residential,” he said.

At TheaterWorks on Pearl Street, Communications Manager Freddie McInerny said the venue has been fortunate to maintain much of its subscriber base, which provides vital, stable revenue.

She said a strong city arts scene is important for large employers, because it makes Hartford a place where workers want to live. In turn, a number of those companies provide key sponsorships to TheaterWorks and its peers.

The challenge in the years ahead, McInerny said, is one that's shared by many theaters.

“My biggest challenge is bringing younger audiences into the theater and establishing a learning curve where folding the arts into your life becomes a given,” she said. “For the younger demographic, the sell is still on.”

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