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How art abides

Bess Gaby, director of Hygienic Art, doesn’t want to hear about “starving artists,” not as a business model.

Arts organizations in New London are, in fact, getting hungry under pandemic pressures, but pleas of starvation aren’t going to solve the problem. Bess has a better idea: collaboration and community.

Bess is new to the job. She became director in February, just a month before the virus hit the fan. She expected a nice job, not a trial by fire.

Bess is an artist, and, like most artists who prefer to avoid starvation, she took a tour through commercial art. But she was happy to get back to the real thing. She became a resident artist at the Hygienic, and a few months later she became director.

And then things started to fall apart. Covid spread. Events were canceled. Volunteers had to stay home. The gallery closed. Grants became as iffy as the projects and programs that weren’t happening.

One of New London’s other big arts organizations, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, had the same kinds of problems. The situation couldn’t get much worse for both organizations. The deck was stacked against them, and old solutions weren’t going to work.

The one thing they had going for them was art.

Artists have a propensity for new ideas. They evolve in unprecedented directions. It’s what they do.

It’s also what the young do. Art and evolution are inherent to the spirit of youth. The young are restless and ready to try something — anything — new. They reject convention. They still have hope.

Fortunately, these two New London arts organizations were being led by the young. Caleb Bailey, executive director of the ECSO, was 35. Bess was younger than that. They were ready to try something new. They didn’t see doom. They saw opportunity.

One convention they rejected was the grabbing of all the grants they could, even at each other’s expense. They also saw the pointlessness of trying to hoard their respective audiences.

They had a better idea. They would collaborate. By sharing resources and constituencies, they could both thrive.

Thus was born the Soundscape concerts at the Hygienic Art Park. After five months of isolation and quarantine, it was just what the community needed. Musicians had an outdoor performance space (and jobs). The Hygienic was enabling art. And the community had what it desperately needed: social gatherings at free concerts in sunlight and fresh air.

For the sake of social distancing, only a minimal audience was allowed into the park. But then something unexpected happened. People gathered outside the Bank Street gate. People watched from a rooftop. People took pictures. The events seemed fabulous and unreal, and they had repercussions beyond the park fence.

The spirit of collaboration extended to the Hot on Bank yoga studio. Like most other businesses, it was closed until someone realized that yoga could be practiced outdoors and that wellness of body and spirit were part of art.

The Art Park was also home to the Drop-In day camp of the Drop-In Community Learning and Resource Center, which offers programs for children.

Bess Gaby’s concept of collaboration went on beyond traditional art communities. She recognized that workers Electric Boat were engaged in creative, innovative pursuits — design, video, engineering, information technology, and all sorts of craftsmanship. Putting a boat under water is an art, and the people who make it possible often like to look beyond the strictly technical aspects of their jobs.

Taking advantage of Zoom technology, Gaby is organizing an impressive five-part series of lectures and discussions on art and innovation, Creative Cooperative City. It pulls together artists, teachers, thinkers, engineers, business people and other fringes of the arts community.

The future of the Hygienic is unclear. It will be there, of course, but its most popular programs—the Salon des Independents, the Naked Canvas, the Mayfly plays, the fashion show, the poetry readings and other events—might not be able to brighten the winter as they used to.

But something will happen. Artists are in charge. Ain’t no virus gonna out-evolve them. It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be good. 

Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, and managing editor of New London Librarium.



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