Miguel Jose Matos didn’t set out to become a painter, but fate, free time, and a global pandemic had other plans. In a former life, Miguel was a banker dealing with commercial real estate, but he says when that got boring, he sought out a new hobby and stumbled onto painting.
“The cool part of the story is that I have no art background. I’ve never studied art. I have no art education whatsoever,” laughs Miguel.
Miguel has only been painting for a few years, but you wouldn’t know it from his home. The space is piled high with canvases, some hanging everywhere you look, while dozens of others are stacked up against various walls, representing only a small portion of his output since he started.
Those beginnings came thanks to a 2018 call for artists at Upward Hartford, a coworking space occupying the first two floors of the Stilts Building on Church Street in the state’s capital city. Miguel was one of seven artists chosen to exhibit work in the space for a short time.
“And at the end of it, they say, we want you to stay. The gallery is yours. Fill it up,” he recalls. “So I had two floors, and by then I had about 30 paintings.”
Eventually, Miguel says Upward asked him to be their resident artist. He was able to exhibit his own work on one floor while the other hosted a new rotating artist every three months with a gallery opening event each time.
During his time, Miguel discovered that his work didn’t just resonate with the folks at Upward, it sold, a fact that surprises him to this day.
In the five years since he first picked up a brush, Miguel has created hundreds of pieces, sold dozens, and exhibited his work in art spaces across the city. While working in contact tracing during the height of the pandemic, he started working in digital art, using it as a kind of sketchbook, a place to keep his ideas before turning them into larger pieces.
The art he exhibits is always on the same size canvas, 30×40, a size that fits in his car, can be easily transported, and easily displayed in a buyer’s home. He works in bright colors, abstract shapes, and occasionally pulls inspiration from his Puerto Rican background. He is hoping to spend 2023 branching out into new avenues, focusing more on social media and finding local shops and spaces to display (and hopefully continue to sell) his work.
But even with the success he has seen and the time he is able to commit to it, Miguel feels there aren’t enough opportunities for local artists to get their work out for public consumption.
“That lack of a place, not only where we can gather, but more importantly, to show and be consistent and Upward Hartford became that,” he says, pointing out that Upward’s gallery space was closed down as a result of the pandemic. “What we don’t have is that person that’s going to be there every day. That’s going to watch the place, that’s going to do the sales, that’s going to promote it and all of that.”
Miguel says he is hoping to work with local art leaders to create a space like this, but that work has only just begun. Meanwhile, the work to find, foster, and support art and artists throughout the state of Connecticut presses forward in ways varied, challenging, and ultimately, hopeful.
How much art do you consume in a given year? Movies, music, television, books, podcasts, plays, photography, painting, sculpture, dance, stand-up comedy, fashion, and video games represent only some of the more popular categories. According to ratings tracker Neilsen, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, media consumption hit record highs.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published its most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts in 2017. The national questionnaire, which tracks the percentage of the population who engage in arts consumption in a given year, divides up American arts attention into five categories: visual arts, music, dance, theater, and literary activity.
In 2017, the survey discovered that more than half (54%) of U.S. adults attended some kind of live event (festival, craft fair, live theater, concert, gallery, etc), while 57% read books recreationally, and 74% consumed some form of electronic media (listening to music, consuming programming related to the arts). The survey notably doesn’t include the number of adults who consume commercial media like film and television.
Connecticut might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of bustling artistic communities. Hartford doesn’t have the same artistic pedigree as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco, but Connecticut residents are still eager to consume art.
That same survey broke down the numbers by state and compared to the national average, Connecticut ranks on par with the U.S. as a whole, with some notable exceptions: While the percentage of Connecticut residents who attend artistic events is slightly lower than the national average (50%), as is the percentage consuming electronic media (72%), Nutmeggers are comparatively bigger readers than the country at large, with 59% reading some type of fiction or poetry in 2017.
“The interesting thing about Connecticut is that it traditionally has high interest in the arts,” says Constance DeVereaux, an associate professor of Arts Management at the University of Connecticut. “But I think that the various, like, economic downturns in Connecticut have had an impact on developing more significant, like, cultural centers like you find in some places.”
Kolton Harris, a program director at the Connecticut Office of the Arts, and an artist in his own right, agrees.
“I think that the challenge and the struggle has been around infrastructure and connectivity and how we’re also supporting folks who want to live and work and create here,” he says. “But also how we’re propelling people to national and global platforms as well.”
In a report from earlier this year, the NEA estimated that Connecticut’s arts industry contributed more than $8 billion to the state’s economy in 2020, and supported nearly 50,000 jobs.
Harris says that to his estimate, the Connecticut arts scene is “pretty big” but that it is also so spread out across various cities and towns that it’s difficult to estimate its true size.
“I definitely see a lot for visual artists, a lot for performing groups, because another thing is individual artists sometimes need connectivity with organizations that have the infrastructure, but sometimes navigating those relationships can make it a little hard too,” he says.
To Harris, the key to succeeding as a local artist is about two things: support and relationships. Part of his job is to create resources for local artists to learn, network, and build their careers and community.
“I’m a part of a really incredible team who are all really focused on providing tools, resources, grant opportunities,” he says, excited. “So we’re amplifying the work of artists and arts organizations. There’s grant opportunities and fellowships, workshops, conversations, and then networking in which we can help create those events, but sometimes just elevating the work of others and being a channel through which people know what’s happening in the state at large.”
Harris says that he has worked to build up the state’s music industry through a local conference and is actively working toward other professional development opportunities through the state office.
“I also produce this talk series called The Talking Artists,” he explains. “Which brings in different artists of different disciplines to be interviewed and have kind of a conversational style, talk show style interview that then is a breeding ground for just conversation around journey, process, and the future of arts and culture and not just the state, but trying to connect us with some more national and global conversations.”
Harris’ goal is to provide opportunities for artists to live a “robust life” while still doing what they love and what their audiences enjoy. To him, that means, “not waking up every day, wondering where the next paycheck is coming from, not really having to hustle every single day, all day, to get gigs or jobs or opportunities or to consistently be doing the work, but having to take away from the work because you’re trying to convince people to support the work.”
“I think that one of the things that we have to realize is again that there are all kinds of art and all kinds of artists,” explains Constance DeVereaux. “And are levels of being an artist.”
DeVereaux says that many people see being successful as an artist as synonymous with fame and fortune when, for the majority of working artists, that’s just not the case. She uses her sons as an example. Both have spent their lives working in visual arts, but they have taken very different tracks to get there. Her older son works freelance while her younger son has spent much of his time as a commercial artist.
“You’re not going to have a regular nine-to-five job as an artist unless you’re in the commercial sphere. Like my younger son would go to an office every day,” she says matter-of-factly. “But if you but so many artists are freelancing. And so then you have multiple jobs or what they call the portfolio career of multiple things that they do.”
That “portfolio work” ranges from contract work with individual clients to finding a select number of high-profile benefactors to placing work in local businesses, or artist-in-residence programs like those that gave Miguel his start. No matter what road you take, living and working as an artist requires hard work and hustle.
“Working artists definitely face the challenge of having space; space to perform, to showcase, to create. Space is a big one,” argues Harris. “And then I think that infrastructure to be able to sustainably produce work that is then celebrated and purchased or shows that are being attended to and having that access point to be able to build an audience, build a following and showcase.”
That’s where Constance DeVereaux’s students come in.
“Running an arts organization is different in lots of ways than running other types of businesses, and the reason for it is that the arts are different in society,” explains DeVereaux. “People’s connection to the arts is different than it is to like shoes or a toothbrush or a lamp. They derive some kind of meaning, connection, whatever it is, and so managing organizations that deal with the arts have to take that into the calculation that people are going to the arts, whether it’s going to dance performances, purchasing art, going to the theater, there’s something that they are looking for beyond merely entertainment.”
Students in the Arts Management graduate program at UConn come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are former artists, some are business-oriented, some have no arts experience at all, but every one of them learns that to make it in this business, you have to approach it as a lifestyle.
The program teaches a variety of skills, from concrete management tools like financial management and grant writing to softer skills like leadership, problem-solving, and articulating complex ideas clearly to others. DeVereaux says that, with the industry changing so rapidly all the time, her goal is to give students a strong but flexible base upon which to build the career they want.
“I think one of the mistakes that we make nowadays with education is thinking that there’s this direct line,” she explains. “So you train as this and you get a job as that. And if you don’t, you failed somehow.”
Most graduates of the program go on to work in high-level positions at arts organizations, serving as CEOs or Executive Directors of non-profit and for-profit groups alike. Those who don’t immediately move into these positions often take lower management jobs on track to those leadership positions, and some branch out into their own businesses, including studios, education, and production houses.
Arts managers are sometimes seen by artists as the gatekeepers of the art world, says DeVereaux, but often they are the ones who make an art economy work. Managers might not be creating art themselves, but they are trying to find a way to support artists and art forms while still making it a sustainable venture.
“There’s a lot that you have to deal with, you know, to bring artists and public together because it’s so much more complex these days. I think that that really illustrates that there’s a role for the arts manager. But I don’t think artists are incapable of doing it. It’s just a matter of what you want to spend your time doing.”
Working with an arts manager, rather than working completely independently, allows artists to focus more of their time on the work on creating art and less on logistics, insurance, marketing, and other parts of the business side.
“We need those folks with business acumen. We need marketing folks. We need folks who are thinking about design and innovation and problem-solving,” says Harris. “It’s the most holistic human space, and I think people are exploring that and seeing that more. And I think our state is taking steps to speak that way, to think about, not just the importance, but the centrality of the arts.”
One type of independent arts organization is the creative co-op, where artists live and work and grow together. Hygienic Art in New London is one such group.
Hygienic formed around 1998, when a group of artists learned that a building on Bank Street was set to be torn down. The group banded together to save it and converted it into a hub for artists and art lovers alike.
These days, the building houses a gallery, a performance space, and six studio spaces which also serve as apartments for the organization’s resident artists. Artists apply to rent one of the live/work studios on a one- or two-year lease. If accepted, Hygienic subsidizes about 40-50% of the artist’s rent. In exchange, the resident artists spend their time creating new work and participating in group shows. Those artists who volunteer their time to help run events or staff the gallery can also receive additional rent discounts.
In exchange, Hygienic gets, well, art, and continues to foster a creative environment for artists young and old to explore, experiment, learn, and create. Their reputation with the community and their network of local artists even draw in outside organizations who are looking to hire a creative professional to do work for them.
“We’re trying to tell people, listen, there’s all sorts of jobs for artists, such as graphic design and teaching and curating,” says Sara Tyler-Connolly, Hygienic’s Director. “And I think artists are realistic about that. You know, they know it’s extremely hard.”
Over the years, Hygienic has hosted around 30 artists from different disciplines (they even play host to a comedian these days) and produced dozens of events for the local community. This season, they have produced 30 different events, including 18 different gallery shows.
“We’ve had residents who have done public art projects,” explains Tyler-Connolly. “We had one artist who coordinated a mural on the outside of [the Caruso Piano Gallery]. It’s a giant on the side of the building and it’s still there. He planned the whole thing. We got funding for him through grant writing and he was able to do that.”
Despite their impressive output, Hygienic is still a very small venture. Tyler-Connolly is the only full-time employee. They also staff one part-time associate and some contract workers who help run the 300-person outdoor performance space. Otherwise, the entire organization is run by volunteers.
Looming large over the local arts scene, however, has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly three years on, the effects of the massive shutdowns continue to threaten artists and arts organizations alike. According to Tyler-Connolly, New London’s art scene took a big hit as the community lost several local galleries even while Hygienic was able to weather the storm.
Nationwide, museums have faced huge drops in attendance since 2020, dropping by nearly 40% at the start of 2022, and those numbers haven’t bounced back at the rate many hoped they would. Larger galleries and museums, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which rely heavily on international travelers to boost their visitor numbers have suffered the most.
Local attractions, though, have been less hard hit. According to ArtNet, this seems to be because local attractions retain a tighter relationship with their communities. These institutions maintained school field trips and attracted audiences with events that were locally focused.
Harris has an even more optimistic outlook, choosing to see the pandemic as a chance for artists and art lovers to reset and rethink.
“I think it put a sense of urgency around really wanting to shift things and open things up,” he says. “I think it produced a lot of time for folks to create, to ponder their pathways, and to see the preciousness of life and see that if we’re going to make change, we’ve got to make it now.”
Still, for many, the question remains: why should we care about the arts? And why, furthermore, should we care to support it and those who choose to follow that path with our hard-earned money?
The answer is not simple or clear. There aren’t concrete, statistical reasons why the arts are important to our society. Instead, they are ephemeral, unique to each person, and, like art itself, often more about what they inspire in others.
“Why do people eat popcorn?” asks DeVereaux. “Because it’s good because, you know, because we like it. There’s nothing special about popcorn, but our government gives subsidies to grow popcorn and people eat popcorn without asking why we do it. But for some reason we agonize over why the arts are so important. And maybe they just are.”
“Where would we be without the arts?” asks Tyler-Connolly, in turn. “Honestly, I think we would all be in a nation of depressed humans. We need the arts more than ever. I mean, we need it to fill our souls and to give us inspiration. And artists need to express themselves to, you know, tell a story. We need art like we need air. What a gray, horrible world it would be without the arts.”
“Better humans are made when there’s more art,” adds Harris. “And art is really at the core of humanity, and it’s the core expressions of humanity. Design thinking solves the world’s greatest problems, and so without supporting the arts, we’re not supporting humanity.”
January 8, 2023 @ 11:05 am
What a delightful article! Thanks!
January 8, 2023 @ 1:01 pm
Awesome read, great insight
January 9, 2023 @ 3:52 pm