Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Charter Oak Cultural Center

“We feel that the arts are not a luxury, but a human right. As air is to the body, so the arts are to the soul!”– Donna Berman

Founded in the 1970s, Charter Oak Cultural Center, located in Hartford, Connecticut, carries out its social justice mission by offering everyone in their community the opportunity to experience the vibrancy of arts. The Center believes nobody should be turned away from the arts for lack of funds, which is why they bring the arts to the community by offering performances, exhibitions, lectures, and classes for free. Projects include opportunities for youth, such as a comprehensive music program at a school in Hartford, where 25 students are receiving eight hours of musical instruction a week. They also offer drawing, rap/poetry, and dance classes to over 1,000 underserved children. Charter Oak also serves the homeless community via arts programming including a school that offers creative writing, journalism, poetry, and arts classes alike; Beat of the Street, a newspaper written by people experiencing homelessness; and other job training opportunities.

With the belief that familiarity breeds community, Charter Oak is launching a new arts initiative with the help of a fall 2016 NEA grant. Traversing Traditions will be an inaugural, month-long arts festival  taking place in October 2016 to celebrate and showcase the cultural arts of India. Dr. Donna Berman, the executive director at Charter Oak described the event, “It's not just a celebration of Indian arts and culture. It's an exploration of  traditional Indian culture and how it does or does not impact contemporary Indian art forms..” We spoke with Berman to learn more about this festival, what she hopes the community will gain from this project, and what makes Charter Oak tick. 

NEA: How does the Charter Oak Cultural Center bring the arts to the community?

DONNA BERMAN: We do the work of social justice through the arts. We do this because we feel the arts are not a luxury, but a human right.  As air is to the body, so the arts are to the soul! We do this  in three ways. We have all kinds of professional performances, which [Traversing Traditions] will be a part of. We never turn anyone away who can't afford a ticket, which are priced as low as possible. We do as much as we can for free. In other words, anybody who wants to come to these performances can do that.

We also have 1,100 kids [participate] in our arts classes. They are all free. It's really sophisticated art classes in music, dance and visual arts. We also have a youth orchestra that we started. We have a program that we do with the police to reinforce a better relationship between the police and Hartford kids —since there have been so many problems throughout the country. We also have free programs for people in the homeless community. That's how we engage with the community. We're a place that's warm and welcoming and loving and we want people to be exposed to the magic and power of the arts.

NEA: Why do you think the arts are important in economically disadvantaged areas?

BERMAN: As soon as the economy is bad, the arts are the first to go. The arts really foster academic interest and ability. They help people become better critical thinkers. The arts are really important academically too. Because the arts are cut so much, especially in impoverished areas, I think the hunger is even deeper for the arts. On the other hand, because there is less exposure, sometimes I think the people who are undeserved don't think that the arts are for them. That's a real problem that we're trying to address. We don't want the arts to be an elitist thing. We want to make sure that everybody knows that the arts do belong to them, that each of us is an important part of the audience and our critical thinking skills are important to bring. Each of us is a very important part of what should be a national conversation about the arts.

NEA: What do you hope the community will learn from multi-cultural arts events?

BERMAN: The polarization between people is getting to be more severe. We feel like Charter Oak is a place where the seeds of peace are planted. The arts teach us so many things in a fun, interesting way. Sometimes we don't even know that we're really learning. It's less threatening. The arts are a wonderful  way to introduce people to other cultures. Coming to these exhibits and performances, people really learn about each other. When we really start to learn about each other, we can start to love each other and appreciate each other in a new way.

NEA: Can you discuss with us what the Traversing Traditions festival is?

BERMAN: It's going to be a month-long celebration of Indian culture, next October in 2016. We’re going to focus on dance, music, food, and film. It's really a conversation between traditional Indian culture and contemporary artists’ interpretation of that. I think of it as knitting, where you go back and take the old row and then you attach a new row. It's not just a celebration of Indian arts and culture, it's really looking at that relationship between the past, present, and the future.

Some of the artists who will participate include Shelly Jyoti, Venkat Singh Shyam, Santosh Kumar Das, Jacqueline Metheny, and Arthur Flowers.

NEA: What do you hope will come out of this program?

BERMAN: I think there's a lot of mystery around Indian culture. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding. We really want people to appreciate the richness of this culture.

NEA: Some of the artists that will be highlighted at the festival are Indian artists living in the U.S. How do you think this geography influences their work and the act of keeping traditional arts alive within the country?

BERMAN: Exactly! That is one of the questions this program will answer. That's another element in this kind of interesting mix. 

NEA: Why feature Indian art?

BERMAN: We've had a very close relationship with the Indian community. The first person I met is a woman who does kathak dancing. She teaches it at Charter Oak. There's an intimacy that comes from seeing [dance] from somebody that you love. That adds another layer of appreciation.

We hope this is going to be the beginning of having a Traversing Traditions festival every year, focusing on different cultures. In many ways, the Indian community has been so central to what we do at Charter Oak and it makes sense that it's the first culture that we're focusing on.

I think the differences are really so mind-expanding for people in the west. I think it cracks open this kind of shell that often people from the west and certainly from the United States put themselves in. Just to see things so differently—to look at dance in such a different way. The focus in Indian dance—foot movement and hand movement—is so much more subtle (at least in more traditional Indian dance). Just to be able to look at things in a completely different way, I think, is like an intellectual earthquake. There are  just so many different ways to do things and we assume that what we do is the norm and it's not. I think for all those reasons, we're so excited to focus this first Traversing Traditions on Indian culture.

NEA: Is there anything you'd like to add before I ask the final question?

BERMAN: We are humbled by this opportunity, to be trusted with this kind of celebration.  We recognize it's a privilege . We want to present this with so much love and respect. This is a way to bring people together and help them understand each other more.

NEA: Fill in the blank. Art matters because...

BERMAN: It helps us think differently. It opens our hearts. It expands our world. It creates community. It's a vehicle for understanding other cultures. It creates the space for peace and deeper understanding between people. It's magical, it's powerful.

Our tagline for Charter Oaks is, "arts that move the world." The arts are a particularly powerful tool for creating a better, more just world because they can cut through the obfuscation of politics and bureaucracy and expose truths that, otherwise, would be hard to see.

Visit the News Room to learn more about the NEA fall 2016 grants.

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