Real Art Ways began when a group of visual artists and musicians took over a rambling upstairs space on Asylum Street in downtown Hartford. The founding members created a bare bones salon in which they lived, worked and presented the work of others. The idea of alternativity to the mainstream is central to Real Art Ways – the organization arose at a moment when alternative ideas were being explored.
Through the latter part of the decade and into the 1980s, Real Art Ways became a necessary venue for artists and performers to be seen and heard, with presentations in innovative music especially notable. Rapid commercial real estate development led to Real Art Ways losing three spaces in ten years. The final eviction in 1989 left Real Art Ways teetering on the edge of extinction, and the organization landed in a small space at 56 Arbor Street in the culturally mixed neighborhood of Parkville.
Under the new leadership of executive director Will K. Wilkins, Real Art Ways regrouped after the move to Parkville. Wilkins ushered in a second life to the organization by commissioning a series of vigorous public art projects, which have been placed in sites throughout the city.
The quality and diversity of Real Art Ways' work have earned it repeated funding from national sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation as well as key local funders including United Technologies, Aetna, Travelers, Fleet Bank, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and many more. Real Art Ways' projects have generated regional and national media coverage, including pieces in Art in America, National Public Radio, the New York Times, Associated Press, Sculpture, Details, the Source, and Rolling Stone.
The Real Art Ways Cinema opened in the fall of 1996, showing first-run, independent films seven nights a week.
Today, Real Art Ways is widely regarded as one of the country's outstanding contemporary art spaces, one that has a special link with its own community. With films, concerts, performance, readings, exhibitions and a lounge where people gather before and after events, the arts center is becoming a unique meeting place for people of widely varying backgrounds to come together around art and ideas.