ROCHESTER — Janet Rodríguez said that her first week of working at J.P. Morgan Chase in New York City should have been a clue that the following eight years would be difficult.
Those early days as vice president of global philanthropy took place the week of Sept. 11, 2001, she noted.
"I had to constantly think of (a career) Plan B," she told the crowd of nearly 100 people gathered at the Sibley Building for a Jan. 14 "Entrepreneurship in the Arts" symposium presented by 21st Century Arts. The symposium is the second in a "Call to Action in ROC" series that will continue through August, explained Rachel DeGuzman, president and CEO of 21st Century Arts.
The Jan. 14 daylong symposium sought to address the need for the arts and cultural groups in the Rochester area to become more entrepreneurial, DeGuzman said. The goal is for these groups to work more effectively and intentionally with area businesses, most notably real estate developers, to build a more vital community, she said.
Other speakers on Jan. 14 included Brian O’Neill, a self-employed artist; Joseph Eddy, a WinnDevelopment vice president; Doug Rice, founder and director of MuCCC and founder of ARTWalk; Robert Doucette, partner at Paramount Realty Group and president at Armory Development and Management in Syracuse; and Mark Nerenhausen, founding director and professor of practice at the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University.
Combining business and the arts turned out to be Rodríguez’s "Plan B" as she sought to take her experience in corporate philanthropy and create positive change in her hometown.
About six years ago, she rented a building in Harlem and began working with local artisans to sell art and wearable art as well as design door gates that would help beautify the neighborhood, Rodríguez explained. The shop was called "Straight out of Harlem (SoHarlem: Creative Outlet)."
"I tried to turn it into something different, not only on the outside but the inside," she said.
But her plan wasn’t working out as well as she had hoped. Although she was working with 40 to 50 artists, she invested her own money to fund the venture — including 401(k) funds she had been saving for 25 years. And when her building lease was up, new regulations switched her rent to market rate, and it jumped from $12 per square foot to $70 per square foot.
"I was barely breaking even," Rodríguez remarked. "I couldn’t do it anymore."
But she did meet a property developer, Scott Metzner of Janus Properties, who liked her "social enterprise" concept. She moved to the Manhattanville Factory District and focused on providing a space for women artists in the neighborhood to help address Harlem’s 27 percent unemployment rate.
"SoHarlem seeks to ensure artisans benefit from economic development," Rodríguez said.
She also sought to help women coming out of prison through apprenticeship programs to prepare them for the workforce. But she had not anticipated all the challenges she would face, she said. These women didn’t just need a job; they also needed housing and child care, she said. And when she did place them in jobs, many times they did not show up for work and she was the one to get the calls at all hours of the day, she explained.
Showing the flexibility needed in mixing business with a social conscience, she now focuses on job training for high-school students and young adults, Rodríguez noted.
"I’ve taken steps back," she said. "So much energy, love and care goes into this. … (But), at the core of what we’re doing is to ensure that local people benefit from redevelopment."
To create that kind of synergy in Rochester means highlighting the arts as an important part of any new development, local artist Thomas Warfield said following Rodríguez’s presentation.
"We have to bring arts to the leadership table," he said. "(The arts) is an important sector in creating a viable place to live. … It’s not just a pretty thing (added) at the end. That’s the real work we have to do."
DeGuzman said that an upcoming symposium focuses on building the relationships needed to foster that kind of collaboration.
"Not only do we need people to invest in and support the arts, but we need to be invested and concerned about their (development)," she added.
Danielle Fraenkel, who owns a dance movement therapy studio, said that Rodríguez’s presentation offered valuable information on how arts and business can find ways to work together despite all the challenges she faced.
"I appreciate everything she is doing to employ people who are going to be dispossessed because of gentrification," she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The next symposium in the "Call to Action in ROC" series will be held next month. For more information, visit 21stcenturyarts.net.