Thinking Big in a Small Town: Ball & Socket Arts Takes Shape
STEPHEN MAINE meets Kevin Daly, the hard-edge abstract painter and high school art teacher launching the MASS Moca of Connecticut.
Cheshire, Connecticut is an affluent but unprepossessing town of 30,000 nestled in the rolling hills between Hartford and New Haven. “The Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut” is home to a highly regarded prep school; the state’s tallest single-drop waterfall; Blackie’s Hotdog Stand (since 1928) and — up Route 10, just past the Cheshire Correctional Institution — the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum. It might seem an unlikely place for a major art and cultural center, but that is precisely what artist and Cheshire native Kevin Daly and collaborators have undertaken to establish — and, in June of 2017, to open to the public — under the name of “Ball & Socket Arts.”
Daly’s co-founders in the venture are costume designer and Yale School of Drama faculty member Ilona Somogyi, and Jeffrey Guimond, who is with New York City Ballet. The trio envisions an enormous and multi-faceted nexus of visual, performing and culinary art located on West Main Street, just east of the center of town on Route 68. It will be housed in the old Ball & Socket Manufacturing Company, a linchpin of Cheshire’s industrial past which, early in its history, produced buttons and snap fasteners (of the ball-and-socket type) for use in Union Army uniforms.
The factory was in continuous operation until 1994, at which time the company folded and the property fell into disuse. The oldest extant building in the rambling, 65,000-square-foot complex dates from the 1890s. Over time, the facility expanded — in a haphazard, as-needed way — across a three-and-a-half-acre plot that abuts the once-busy (if short-lived) Farmington Canal.
Since 2011 a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, Ball & Socket Arts, Inc. bought the property about a year ago for $750,000, assisted by a $1.689 million loan from Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, tax breaks, and a deal with the Connecticut Light and Power Company. “I went to art school, and I teach high school art,” says Daly. “I’m like the least-suited person to be doing this.”
Be that as it may, the organization’s efforts got the site into the State Registry of Historic Places, opening up new funding sources for the buildings’ rehabilitation; federal recognition may soon follow. David Arai of Meier Group Architects, based in Ann Arbor, is overseeing the renovation project, which will retain much of the labyrinthine look and feel of the existing structures.
Daly hopes the project will become a shining example of “adaptive reuse” in the vein of MASS MoCA, the North Adams, Massachusetts institution launched in 1999 and widely viewed as a factor in that town’s economic revival. A walk-through of the abandoned complex suggests its enormous potential. The question now facing Ball & Socket Arts is, if you build a center for cultural producers will an audience of cultural consumers materialize?
According to Daly, “We’re seeing it not just as a big regional arts center, but also as a benefit to the local community,” with some of Ball & Socket’s exhibition programming reserved for artists who work nearby. Also included in the plans are artist and music instruction studios, a dance studio complete with a sprung floor, a cinema, and — in a performance space that can seat 150 — programming for the 60-year-old Cheshire Community Theater. The Cheshire Historical Society will present exhibitions here, as well.
The idea of a printmaking cooperative has been floated. An outdoor sculpture court (or two) seems likely. Also in the works are a bar, a food court, and a dining room served by a teaching kitchen with a chef-in-residence program. And beer! For the hulking, cavernous coal house that dominates the southern end of the property, various uses were considered before the current plan for a brewery emerged. Says Daly, “I liked the idea of indoor rock-climbing, but if we can’t have that, well… beer is good, too.” One expects that the Ball & Socket Ale label will contribute significantly to the organization’s goal of supporting itself financially within just a few years, enabling free admission. A retail concourse and office space rental will help, too.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of work to do. The buildings have been shuttered, but time has taken its toll on infrastructure. Environmental remediation of various kinds are needed to restore the interior to functionality; Daly targets the spring of 2016 for completion of that phase of the overhaul. “If the building falls down, someone has to clean it up,” he notes, so the $400,000 grant by the Town of Cheshire (money channeled from the DECD) is a wise use of municipal funds.
No stone is left unturned in the search for ways to integrate Ball & Socket Arts with the broader culture of the community: the old Farmington Canal — later, a railroad right-of-way — is now a bicycle trail and the spinal column of the Farmington Canal Linear Park, which is scheduled to be completed not long after Ball & Socket Arts opens its doors. At the rear of the new complex, just a few yards from the trail, a bike shop will be set up to service the needs of local cyclists.
Daly, a painter of hard-edged, color-savvy abstractions, has for several months organized lively group exhibitions — mainly of artists from New York and southern Connecticut — at the Art Garage, a tidy, white-walled exhibition space in a former automobile service station across the street from the factory. Having the Art Garage has been “huge,” says Daly; as well as providing enhanced visibility and a public face for Ball & Socket Arts, the gallery “revives the passion that was our original motivation” by embodying, albeit on a small scale, the concept of “placemaking” that he hopes will thrive in the bigger project. An art auction is planned for October 24 to benefit Ball & Socket’s capital campaign.