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January 31, 2022 Arts Biz

From modest beginnings, Real Art Ways’ $14.7M expansion aims to create major center of contemporary art

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Executive Director Will Wilkins stands in front of Real Art Ways’ 56 Arbor St. home, which it purchased and plans to renovate as part of a major expansion. It has been allocated $9 million from the Community Investment Fund.

While many Hartford arts organizations have come and gone over the years, Real Art Ways has had staying power.

The 47-year-old contemporary arts nonprofit has been able to withstand the test of time due to a variety of factors, including the opening of an art house cinema that added a key revenue stream over the years, according to Gregg Rohde, Real Art Ways’ board chair since 2019 and director of corporate reinsurance placement at property and casualty insurer Travelers Cos.

Gregg Rohde

Now the organization is eyeing a new chapter of growth.

Real Art Ways, which has called 56 Arbor St. in the Capital City’s Parkville neighborhood home for 32 years, purchased the property in late December for $4 million, and is planning an ambitious two-year, $14.7 million expansion and renovation of the 83,000-square-foot building that’s expected to begin this fall.

The project includes increasing the number of cinemas from one to four and adding: educational space for classes and workshops; a theatrical area for performing arts events; a cafe and gathering space; additional galleries; rental space for events, offices and studios; and a video room.

The expansion will also help the local economy.

In total, officials said, 25 full- and part-time staff will be hired and 120 temporary construction jobs will be available during the renovation phase. Real Art Ways currently employs nine full-time staff and 15 part-time workers.

“Real Art Ways has been a vital center of arts, culture, and community in the city of Hartford for decades, and it’s an anchor institution in the Parkville neighborhood,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. “Real Art Ways is already an oasis for artists, creators, lovers of art, and just a whole lot of interesting people, and this expansion will establish Real Art Ways as a major center of contemporary art, arts education, music, film, and creative enterprise – not just for Connecticut, but for New England.”

Rohde said Real Art Ways is able to expand now because of its fiscally-conservative approach under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Will K. Wilkins.

According to its 990 form for the tax year ending Sept. 30, 2020, Real Art Ways posted a $255,040 surplus and $1.4 million in revenues.

“This is a really well-run organization,” Rohde said. “Every year when we have our books audited, the feedback is the same — Real Art Ways does this better than the nonprofits our auditors work with … . They are nimble when required and we make well-informed, rational decisions about how to keep the programming fresh and alive and the doors open.”

A social space

Wilkins, Real Art Ways’ leader for 32 years, said there have been eight strategic plans during his tenure with the last two focused on buying the Arbor Street building and expanding.

The project will be paid via different sources, including donations from its 3,000 supporters, corporate funding and a $3 million state grant approved in December by the state Bond Commission.

“Travelers [Cos.] has been very generous to us, especially around the building,” Wilkins said.

The addition of new cinemas comes at an interesting time, as the pandemic severely hampered the movie theater industry.

Overall, North American box offices recorded $4.5 billion in ticket sales last year, up significantly over 2020, but a nearly 60% decline from 2019, according to Comscore.

Wilkins said he’s not worried about the industry’s struggles because Real Art Ways doesn’t just offer a transactional movie-watching experience.

“People are social beings,” he said. “Real Art Ways is a social space. We are not just presenting movies. We are offering a social context for people to interact with each other. People will be hungry for this when the pandemic ends and it will end.”

Movie ticket sales make up 25% of Real Art Ways’ revenue and the current cinema seats 155 people. The additional three cinemas will each have between 50 and 90 seats.

The types of movies Real Art Ways shows range in genre. For example, during the week of Jan. 19, it featured “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington, and “The Velvet Queen,” which is a documentary that follows a photographer and writer in their search for a rare snow leopard in Tibet.

Other revenue sources include ticket sales to events such as concerts, lectures and creative cocktail hours. It also earns money from individual contributions, concession sales and foundations, including the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Government funding sources include the National Endowment for the Arts and state of Connecticut.

While Real Art Ways has a big vision for the future, one thing that Wilkins said he doesn’t expect to change much is the Arbor Street building’s approximately 90 tenants, which include about two dozen artists as well as graphic designers and a mixture of architects, engineers, lawyers and nonprofits.

The nonprofit has formed a new limited liability company that will operate the building.

“There are a real variety of creative enterprises here,” Wilkins said. “We are committed to keeping that dynamic mix of people here.”

Community art

Real Art Ways started in 1975 as an alternative arts organization and was formed when a group of artists set up live-work space in downtown Hartford. Today, it features artwork and displays from a wide range of individuals from all walks of life.

Exhibits run the gamut and include a display by Anne Wu — called a “A Dream Walking” — that will be shown through Feb. 6, and features five vibrantly-hued sculptures referencing familiar architectural forms that evoke both a sense of place and no place at all.

In addition, Wilkins said, the organization works closely with city and community leaders to bring art to Hartford’s residents.

Real Art Ways has commissioned or produced more than 40 public arts projects throughout the city, oftentimes collaborating with community groups, he said.

The organization has also worked with 42 artists who were winners of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grants awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Wilkins said he expects the expansion to lead to growth for his nonprofit.

“I expect our membership to grow and I expect a diversified income base,” Wilkins said. “I also believe that we will be alive seven nights a week and be a place where people can come to connect with each other.”

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