How delightfully unpredictable that what began as an anti-establishment art show launched by a group of young artists has grown into an organization that serves as New London's cultural anchorage, changing the very fabric of the city and driving economic development.
Certainly none of those young artists could have envisioned any of that when, in 1979, they sought to expose the common man to art "by putting our art in a place where you would never think of having an art show," recalls A. Vincent Scarano.
The ironically named Hygienic Restaurant on Bank Street, a seedy grill "home to sailors, fishermen - real fishermen - drag queens and other denizens of the night," was such a place, said Mr. Scarano.
In hanging art on the walls of the Hygienic, much to the bemusement of its patrons, the artists sought to capture the spirit of the Salon des Independants movement, when French impressionists in the late 19th century exhibited their works in the cafes after being denied placement in the traditional galleries.
That tradition continues starting Saturday with the Hygienic XXXV Art Exhibition at the site of the former grill, now turned art gallery. In those intervening years, Hygienic Art Inc. has come to mean so much more to New London than this single event.
The organization saved the building where the exhibit takes place. In 1996 it faced demolition. Working with state and local officials, the art group undertook a project to renovate and find a new use for the three-story building. In 2000 it reopened as the Hygienic Galleries, with upper floors housing six affordable-housing apartments, available to artists. Those apartments became a catalyst for renovating other downtown buildings into residential space, which in turn helped drive a vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene.
After acquiring adjacent vacant lots, the Hygienic Art Park and Outdoor Theater opened in the summer of 2005. It plays host to summer concerts, movie nights, theater performances and other events.
Mr. Scarano, now president of Hygienic Art, estimates his organization, through donations and government grants, has invested $1.6 million into its downtown facilities.
The Hygienic offers after-school literacy classes and a photography program - "Picture My World" - that encourages city students to capture the beauty, struggles, architecture and emotions of their urban environment.
Hygienic Art reaches beyond its Bank Street domain. It organized "Wall to Wall: The New London Mural Walk," a six-block, self-guided tour through the district to view 16 murals painted on public and private buildings in the city, believed to be the largest such walk in New England.
Watch for the announcement soon of the "New London Light Cube," an LED-lighting project that will turn the Water Street parking garage into artwork.
The annual Hygienic Art exhibit itself - always a mid-winter diversion as it begins on the last Saturday in January - has become a multifaceted event taking place across numerous venues, offering music, fashion, poetry readings, theater and cabaret.
At the heart of all of it is the Hygienic's continuing mission to promote, encourage and foster artistic expression and awareness. Along with Garde Arts Center, the Hygienic has made New London a cultural destination and earned the city a reputation as an artist colony.
It is a grassroots success story. An example, said Mr. Scarano, of what can happen when "creative, passionate people work together." It is a wonderment, and New London is lucky to have it.