Art Works Blog

MICD 25 Spotlight on Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut

This diagram shows how the new Connecticut Square and historic Bushnell Park---renovated and restored with moving water---will organize most of downtown's key destinations (shown in white), all within easy walking distance. Courtesy Suisman Urban Design / The Bushnell 

The Horace Bushnell Memorial Corporation---popularly known as the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts---is one of Hartford, Connecticut's leading arts organizations, housing a number of the city's cultural organizations. The Bushnell received its MICD 25 grant to support The iQuilt, an ambitious project that will capitalize on the city's dense concentration of downtown arts and culture organizations and public spaces. We spoke with Bushnell's Associate Director for Grants and Government, Vanessa Giannasi, to get more insight on the city's plans.

NEA: Please give a brief description of your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Hartford?

VANESSA GIANNASI: The iQuilt is an arts-based economic development plan capitalizing on Hartford?s unique heritage and cultural assets. More than 45 such assets are located within a remarkably compact downtown area---all within a 15-minute walk of each other, including such jewels as The Bushnell, Capitol and State Museums, Bushnell Park, The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Stage, Old State House, and the new Connecticut Science Center. The plan proposes developing new and updating existing public spaces as well as identity branding and innovative way-finding strategies. With interpreted trails, interactive street furniture, green arts features, public art, and active arts programming, The iQuilt will make it easy and enjoyable to walk from one cultural asset to another. Formally imbedded in Hartford?s 10-year Master Plan--- One City, One Plan---which has gained support from all sectors of the city, The iQuilt is widely viewed as a logical next step in ongoing efforts to revitalize Hartford?s downtown. 

It is our hope that The iQuilt will provide many important benefits to Hartford including: increasing visitation, tourism and attendant local spending; stimulating development and the expansion of the cultural sector by attracting artists, other members of the creative class, and other arts-related, arts-based enterprise; coalescing several critical state, municipal, and regional initiatives, thereby leveraging more than $1B that has been invested in Hartford by the public and private sectors since 2000; promoting further capital investment for new downtown residential and commercial development; and providing, as one Hartford resident remarked, ?a shared living room for all residents of Hartford to come together.?

NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

GIANNASI: While social advantages of a culturally vibrant urban district are widely acknowledged nationally, the arts and culture industry also generates significant economic impacts through jobs, construction investment, increased tourism, and visitor spending. The arts matter in Hartford. A river capital with a long tradition of innovation in culture and commerce, Hartford was recently ranked 14th in arts and culture among America?s 140 largest cities, and the city?s creative sector generates nearly $245 million annually in economic activity.

In 2007, The Urban Land Institute (ULI), in evaluating Hartford?s built environment and economic challenges, made a single over-arching recommendation: ?Focus on thoughtful, creative in-fill projects to link and leverage Hartford?s myriad cultural assets.? Following the ULI study, the city began the process of creating its new 10-year master plan. In 2008, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and The Greater Hartford Arts Council initiated The iQuilt. As the ULI report underscores, ?civic success [can be defined as] an economically, socially, racially, and functionally integrated community, [and achieved by] investing in improvements to the quality of the public realm?such as streets, sidewalks, open spaces, and landmarks. [Together, these] define the character and quality of urban experience, improve overall civic image, and contribute to the quality of life [of] visitors and residents.?

Further, a growing body of research indicates that for long-term prosperity and social well-being, cities should not only invest in their premier cultural institutions, but should strengthen the ?natural? cultural assets of their neighborhoods. These include commercial arts firms, informal cultural associations, and resident artists. Neighborhoods with high indexes for such assets, usually accompanied by high social diversity, have been called ?natural cultural districts.? The iQuilt provides an opportunity to create positive connections between institutions like the Bushnell and nearby neighborhoods, through outreach, programming, job training, commercial arts opportunities, and even housing and cultural residencies. Such an effort would go a long way towards validating and refining the Hartford region?s strategy of using  culture as a primary tool for economic and social change.

NEA:Given the nature of The iQuilt project, how would you define the term ?public art??

GIANNASI: In the context of The iQuilt, public art refers equally to artistic ?festival? programming, streetscapes, street furniture, landscapes, sculpture, and other physical artwork. As important as an environment?s compelling physical and artistic appearance are the opportunities for artistic engagement that can occur through dynamic arts programming. Festivals focusing on the arts and innovation would be central to The iQuilt and will serve to bring visually appealing environments to life through dynamic arts programming.

NEA: How do you think having works of art on public display (whether as permanent installations or in storefronts) enhance the civic life of a community?

GIANNASI: Having works of art on public display---and in the case of The iQuilt, using the theme of innovation as a touchstone for all artistic programming---has a number of virtues. Public art in the context of innovation allows for a broader definition of Hartford?s cultural assets: it can highlight the creativity of the political mind or industrial inventor as readily as the performer or visual artist. It encourages positive associations between knowledge and creativity, between industry and culture, between science and the arts.

Though rooted in the new, innovation also invokes the past. Hartford has a long and proud tradition of innovation in a wide range of areas such as democratic government (first written constitution), the press (oldest newspaper in continuous publication) precision manufacturing (first brick-making machine, first American bicycle, guns, tools, jet engines, helicopters), education (first school for the deaf in the New World), finance (insurance industry), and civic engagement (first publicly purchased park, first free public art museum). In the present, Hartford is committed to innovative strategies for its economic and civic revitalization, perhaps best symbolized by the new science center. And innovation as a theme also lays down a future challenge to Hartford to find ways of competing and thriving in a globalized economy while reducing its negative environment impact---the latter includes sustainable transport projects, of which The iQuilt could serve as an innovative prototype and shining example.

The theme of innovation could find physical expression not only in traditional cultural expressions such as outdoor sculpture, fountains, or architecture, but, for example, in an interactive kiosk relating to the State Constitution, or a full-scale helicopter or jet engine on outdoor display. Even cultural destinations outside of the downtown core---for example, Coltsville or the Mark Twain House---could find representation within The iQuilt through the use of markers, kiosks, or displays. These are the kinds of strategies the project is intended to explore.

NEA: How important is MICD 25 funding for the success of your project?

GIANNASI: Support from the NEA will serve as a powerful lever to attract additional funding that is vital to the success of this critical initiative for our city.

Read more about all 21 MICD 25 projects on the MICD 25 page on our website.

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