New Arts Entrepreneurs in Burlington Promote Sustainable Culture
State of the Arts
Among the most entertaining new additions to the South End Art Hop earlier this month were the standup comics on a shuttle bus ferrying passengers up and down Pine Street. Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick of Burlington’s Spark Arts organized the deservedly popular mobile jesters. But the bus hosting the laff riot turned heads, too. It’s a vehicle owned by the proprietors of ArtsRiot, and the Art Hop was just the kind of event with which they like to get involved.
“We’re into having events and promoting other people’s,” says ArtsRiot cofounder Felix Wai. Since launching in July, ArtsRiot has been making connections with the youthful cognoscenti of Burlington, offering a selective calendar of events on its website. They range from a skateboarding session at Maglianero to apple-pie making at Champlain Orchards.
ArtsRiot is also initiating events of its own — including a themed supper-club series called Isole Dinner Club, with local chef Richard Witting. Food, art, music and culture are the targeted areas of interest. “We keep following the path of collaboration,” Wai says.
The nascent company is a bit hard to define, in part because its existence is largely virtual. Wai offers this in a blog post on the website: “We made this site in order to showcase, support and send love and energy to all the creative people in our community…”
While that doesn’t sound like a particularly lucrative business model, Wai, 33, and his partner, PJ McHenry, 26, are optimistic that their LLC start-up will eventually pay for itself with online advertising and admission fees at its own events, as well as revenue from marketing and consulting. Meanwhile, Wai says, ArtsRiot is paying for two employees with a grant from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Vermont HITEC.
During an interview at ArtsRiot HQ — aka Wai’s apartment on Lakeview Terrace in Burlington — he and McHenry wax enthusiastic about their new enterprise. Wai is a doctoral student at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, his dissertation topic socially engaged ecological design. His parents are from Hong Kong, but Wai was raised in Memphis, Tenn.
He comes to the arts-and-culture scene with a serious background: Not only does Wai study sustainable living, he spent some time working in New Orleans on disaster relief and rebuilding. “I went back to New Orleans after Katrina,” says Wai, who had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tulane University, “and found out what I really love: community organizing.”
After “cutting my teeth,” he says, in the Crescent City, Wai lived in Hong Kong for six months, and then returned to New Orleans to teach sixth-grade science at a charter school. Next, he decided to “marry grassroots education and eco-design” and enter the program at the Rubenstein School. In Burlington, Wai met McHenry through friends, and discovered that the two shared a common interest in environmental issues and in “creating spaces for the community exploration of art, food and music.”
The pair believes one of the best ways to organize people is through social functions. So far, ArtsRiot’s activities seem geared toward just that — socializing — but Wai suggests that bringing people together, whether for a nonprofit cause or to enjoy local culture, is an important aspect of “what makes a place worth living in.”
“Felix and I thought there was room out there for [ArtsRiot],” says McHenry, a Vermont native who went to Burlington High School and to college at University of Miami. In addition to ArtsRiot, he works as an independent contractor for Fuse, a marketing company in Winooski. Both McHenry and Wai believe that “cause-oriented work” will flow from the communities created through social networking.
But it’s not just about the parties, or helping other organizations put on events. That’s relatively easy. So, in a sense, is mobilizing in the aftermath of a natural disaster. That is, “when there’s an acute need, everyone gets how that works,” suggests Wai. But here in Vermont, he says, “We are trying to be sustainable. That’s the long, hard game.”
If social communities can get us to that goal, party on.
ArtsRiot is hosting a mural-painting event, called “The Space Between,” with six street artists on October 6, 3 to 9 p.m., in the alley by Curtis Lumber in Burlington. Admission is free; food and bar from vendors.