Enough Elephants in the Room for a Circus
Hartford is a small, diverse city. The 2010 census data indicates that 38.7% of its population identifies as black, 43.4% identifies as Hispanic, and 15.8% identify as white, non-Hispanic. The rest falls into categories of white, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and biracial/multiracial. Of course, we know these numbers do not reflect those who are not reached by data collectors; historically, blacks and Hispanics are undercounted.
Knowing this, questions were raised going into last week’s #youngHartford forum about the blatant lack of racial diversity on the panel.
Carlos Hernández Chávez, a local with a solo exhibit currently on display in the ArtWalk Gallery, posed a similar line of questions while in the audience of the Courant/Fox/HYPE-sponsored event: “I’ve been here [in Hartford] 47 years,” he said. “Hartford right now is over 50% Hispanic. How many of you are Hispanic here?” he asked the audience. A few hands were lifted. “That’s not 50%.”
Hernández Chávez said this was not about creating guilt for anyone, but this subject had to be discussed.
“How many dark faces do you see here?” he continued. “If we want to see Hartford thrive,” he said, “then “you have to look at that issue.”
But not everyone has been wiling to do that. Sidestepping unpleasant controversy is just easier for some, including those who had both an audience and a microphone but chose to use neither for the greater good.
That’s not to say that all of the panelists were complacent.
Before the night began, there was some discussion on Facebook about just this issue, with panelist Julia Pistell engaging others, and during the event, she acknowledged that there is much diversity in Hartford, both in terms of race/ethnicity and economic class.
Anne Cubberly, another panelist, said “we’re underrepresented on this panel in a lot of different ways.”
Panelist Cynthia Bulaong, who has organized Hartford Open Studio, seemed to downplay the issue, saying “I don’t think of ethnic diversity any different than I think of the individual artist.”
Tiptoeing around this issue in the Mark Twain Museum, of all places, seems wrong. Various community members have had solid suggestions for dealing with what in 2014 should not be called a simple oversight, including that event planners get out of their comfort zones and mingle with more of the Hartford community so to know who else is out here.
This is not the first time the #youngHartford forum has had this problem. They were criticized for the same thing a few months ago — the panel, to comment on Hartford, simply did not represent enough of Hartford in age, race/ethnicity, and neighborhood. This time, there were clear oversights in types of art included on the panel and in conversation. Deborah Goffe, founder of Scapegoat Garden, pointed out that had she not mentioned dance in her comments as an audience member, that would have never been discussed. Furbirdsqueerly gives credit for them actually including women on the panel, something that does not happen often in the art world, but this one strong point does not erase the absence of actual young people on a panel that had the word “young” in its title.
In dozens of conversations about this, it has become obvious that these inequities are a concern for many Hartford residents, whether they identify as artists, young, poor, anarchist, or not.
What is Right with Hartford
A question that was posed before and since this event has been who this panel was for. Who is the target audience?
Some of the language hinted. For starters, the hashtag (pound sign) being used in the event title seemed like a way to reach the young and/or technologically obsessed. This was admittedly a turn off for us, being not-so-young and seeing technology as a tool rather than status item.
And then the event was pitched as having “edgy” artists, something that several panelists admitted finding cringeworthy. You know, if you have to announce in neon that something is edgy, is it really?
But then came the other part of the pitch: these artists would be here to show that Hartford has it going on.
So, when the moderator, Chion Wolf, asked the panelists what was going right with Hartford, it was expected.
Hartfordites know we’ve got talent. Khaiim the RapOet, one panelist, spoke to this: “everyone’s an artist whether they know it or not.” Sometimes there is a sense of isolation, but Khaiim said that “once you start to network and get in the loop, there are opportunities.”
True, true, but who here is unaware of that?
Panelist Anne Cubberly spoke to the importance of “collaborating with other talented people” and the need to bridge communities. She asked the audience how many of them identify as artists or work for an arts organization. Half raised their hands. She said that 50% of the audience could be up on the panel.
Nobody considered that an invite to crash the table, however. A few waited patiently until Q&A to speak their minds. For an arts event, the audience seemed demure.
So, again, who was this panel for?
It’s worth pausing to think of the event’s sponsors: CT1Media (Hartford Courant, FOX CT, etc.) and HYPE (an initiative of the MetroHartford Alliance, which is a fancy name for Chamber of Commerce). What do they gain from sponsoring this? What message are they trying to promote?
Art as Business
Aside from the played out pining for a grocery store in downtown — the talk of obstacles was the most thought-provoking of the planned discussion.
“There’s a real challenge when we all want events to be free,” Julia Pistell said, “and when we want artists to be paid.”
This is indeed a challenge for Hartford, though not unique to Hartford. Without paying artists, we are saying that the work has no value, that their time has no value. Art is seen as a labor of love, not a legitimate form of income, by some. And it gets forgotten that artists have rent and light bills to pay.
Can’t pay in love.
Khaiim shed some light on art as business: “I spend just as much time doing invoices and paperwork as I do making art.”
For the period of 2008-2012, 33.9% of Hartford’s population was living below the poverty level.
How do we sustain the arts in a way that includes whichever residents wish to take part?
Many of the free events that we have in the city are sponsored by grants. Is that sustainable?
Others get funding from major corporations. Does corporate interest put limits on the type of art that we can access? Do these funding sources directly or more quietly muzzle artists, giving them strict limits within which their work may fall?
Cynthia Bulaong said that “people have to learn how to support the arts.” “People need to learn to buy original art.”
But what of those who are on assistance, who live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is around 43%? Do they also have to learn to support the arts?
Attracting and Keeping Young People
Pistell, who is part of Sea Tea Improv, gave an answer that sounded flippant, but is really the answer to the question that keeps getting asked: How do we lure young people to Hartford and then keep them here.
“Find a way to pay them,” she said.
Now, take that sentiment and apply it to any chosen field. People have to be able to live, whether we are talking about artists, cashiers at Big Lots, or actuaries.
It may be time to begin more nuanced conversations about how to make sure residents get paid for their work and have opportunities to do work.
Khaiim and Anne Cubberly took this question in a slightly different direction, with the former urging people to “start appreciating the artists” who are here now and Cubberly suggesting that we “pay attention to the people that are here.”
No need to roll out the welcome mat, the propaganda videos, and everything else desperately trying to get more people to Hartford. Young people: Hartford already has ’em.
One way to do that entice youth to remain here (besides providing meaningful employment): actually include the young people — reach out to teenagers — on such panels and look at what they are doing. Take it seriously. Take youth seriously, even if their soundbites might not be what one is hoping for, even though youth may seem too unpredictable for a buttoned-up affair such as the one in the Twain House.
Something that was not mentioned once during the discussion is the organic park, Heaven. Skateboarding and parkour aside, this spot in Downtown is covered in graffiti, also known as aerosol art. Those kids were not on the panel, and by and large, not part of this audience. But they are in Hartford, yes?
It’s not a challenge to find and engage those young people already here. If not willing to sit in a downtown concrete park, go to the Kabbalah House during an open mic. Afraid to leave that comfort zone? On a recent Friday night, a high school student, Qusharia, played guitar and sang at an event hosted by Hartford Prints! and StudioN111 on Pratt Street. One need not even leave a “hip” street to find young voices. What about the many young people who have participated in Hartbeat Ensemble’s Youth Play Institute? What about the young folks involved at Charter Oak Cultural Center?
Yesterday, Huffington Post published a piece called “Ten Great Reasons to Visit Hartford, CT, Now.” Several of those ten items were related to Mark Twain. While we adore Mark Twain like any good Hartfordite should, we have many other former and current residents who have and are doing interesting things. It makes one wonder if the author is truly familiar with her subject, or is on deadline and reaching for what is right in front of her. The #younghARTford forum felt like this list.