Contributed by Neil Daigle Orians / The first time I visited EBK Gallery on Pearl Street in Hartford was during my second-to-last semester in graduate school at UConn. Our professor was exhibiting new paintings, so a group of us piled into my car and made the trek from Storrs. Thanks to an unfamiliarity with Hartford, combined with a misunderstood Google search, my phone took us to Park Street, where EBK Picture Framing is housed. By the time our course was corrected, we had missed the reception (and our professor) by mere minutes. We were cold, tired, and anxious — this was also the night before our midterm critiques.
Eric Ben-Kiki had already locked the door. Upon seeing us outside, he opened the door with a smile, showing us his space and talking to us about what he does. He even offered us the rest of his wine and cheese (if memory serves, a colleague ended up taking an unopened bottle back to our studios). This chance meeting I had with Eric served as the perfect introduction of who he is as a person and curator; kind, open, and accessible.
On December 3rd, 2018, Eric sent his e-mail list a formal announcement of the closure of his Pearl Street space, including an image of the final exhibition: wall text mimicking a standard Internet browser 404 error.
As an artist and curator, I’ll be the first to say contemporary art needs a stronger presence in Hartford. EBK helped fill the gaps downtown, offering both an exhibition and meeting space. During his almost five-year tenure on Pearl Street, Eric produced over 70 exhibitions, each with an opening event. It was simply impossible to attend a reception at EBK and not feel a sense of community and togetherness. Unfamiliar faces became familiar, whether through happenstance or introduction from a friend. His events typically subverted my socially anxious proclivities and allowed me to enter the Hartford art scene, one slice of cheese at a time.
Whether he believes it or not, Eric also taught me a handful of valuable lessons through our interactions since I was a cold graduate student. One of the most important lessons was how easy it can be to take steps towards accessible art exhibits. There is a simple brilliance to how he used timers with his gallery lights; Regardless if he was present, the gallery was always lit until midnight every day. The large street-facing windows made it easy to see what was going on from the sidewalk, allowing TheatreWorks attendees, late-night office workers or patrons of bin228 to view the art.
Eric’s openness and flexibility enabled me to visit his space and view work when I couldn’t make it to an opening. I try to apply these lessons to my work at Real Art Ways, by stressing the importance of accessibility and community in contemporary art, and being open to the needs of very busy people.
The programming at EBK was eclectic, fresh and always fascinating. Stass Shpanin’s “Coltland Souvenir Shop” paired pop-art aesthetic sensibilities with a connection to Hartford’s history of gun production — complete with working single-horse carousel. Carla Gannis wowed viewers with her “The Garden of Emoji Delights,” a total re-imagination of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal concept of heaven, hell, and limbo. Tim Wengertsman’s “The Hartford Last Supper” combined spectacle with painting. Wengertsman painted the 22-foot-long recreation of his woodcut print live in the space, between August and September 2015. Arien Wilkerson and collaborators crafted a series of performance “sketches” and excerpts, activating the small space in experimental ways.
These examples are a small but powerful sampling of Eric’s curatorial eye, weaving contemporary aesthetics with a combined sense of place, humor, and critical attention. To this day, EBK remains the only space where I have ever experienced beautiful portraits of goats, thanks to photographer Kevin Horan.
There is now a noticeable absence with EBK Gallery’s closure, yet I have nothing but confidence that Eric will remain an integral part of Hartford’s art scene. His frame shop remains open, and he will continue to maintain an online gallery presence. Nonetheless, we miss you already, EBK.
Note: This piece was originally published in the Hartford Courant.