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Sounding Out Cuba

Kim Taylor visits Cuba with Dave Matthews, Smokey Robinson, and Usher to find a country rich with art, education—and possibility



Kim and son Henry with Usher, who also had impromptu performances with Cuban counterparts.

Kim Taylor

In the winter of 1961, we were told, Che Guevara asked Fidel Castro to play golf in what had been the most elite country club in Havana, by then long deserted, its members having fled the Revolution. No one knows whether it was Che’s or Fidel’s idea, but it was decided this would be the location for a national art school, the Instituto Superior de Artes. And this was the spot where my 15-year-old son, Henry, (pictured right) and I found ourselves this past April.

In Cuba. Havana. Standing in the courtyard of this school, built by architect Ricardo Porro and inspired by female fertility. “Notice the four breasts at each end. We are now inside the woman’s reproductive organs,” our guide intones. A bit much for Henry, who chooses to sprint inside to see some other art.

I was six years old when the Cuban missile crisis played out. I remember watching our handsome President, John F. Kennedy, on our television with rabbit ears, telling us to store rations in basements or bomb shelters, and my mother crying. I helped bring distilled water and condensed milk down to the cellar. I brought down Candyland and Chutes and Ladders since I couldn’t imagine what my father would do, home all day from work, cooped up in our dank basement.

I grew up looking at the metal globes at home and school with the terrifying red hammer and sickle of Russia plastered over the tiny island of Cuba. A bearded Castro (pictured left next to the right of his brother Raul) remained a menacing figure over the years, in his olive uniform and boots and beret with the red star, denouncing America at every turn. 

Yet here I was, a world away from my Berkshire home yet only a 45-minute flight from Miami, in the hot sunlight of this country that had cast such a dark shadow on so many of us for so long.

As a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, I traveled to Cuba in April with my son, Henry. (James was on a long-scheduled concert tour, so he could not join us.) We were part of the first official cultural delegation between the U.S. and Cuba, following President Obama’s visit of reconciliation.

As we were driven from the airport on one of the many vast buses, all made in China, my son exclaimed: “Gee, this country is poor!” We were driving by university dorms that loomed like a decrepit prison. 

“Why would anyone choose Communism, Mom?” he asked.

“Google Batista, honey.”

The roads were old and often littered with piles of asphalt from abandoned jack-hammering. But the crumbling architecture was eclectic and elegant, even in its decay. Moorish, Spanish, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco—reminiscent, somehow, of an old mining town in the American West, having turned its back on the future. (Pictured right, the facade of a city apartment.)

Our lovely guide—tours are required to hire government-employed guides—announced from the bus’s tinny mike: “You will be hearing a lot about the glorious year of 1959 when the people’s will prevailed.”

It so happened that our visit coincided with the exact date of the Bay of Pigs invasion, 55 years ago. That fact did not go unnoticed. We were, sometimes good-naturedly, needled about the Bahia de Cochinos.

Another coincidence was that the twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party was taking place, shrouded in secrecy and basically a stone’s throw from our hotel. A Cuban journalist whom we met a number of times at events explained there is no transparency to such meetings and that foreign press is banned. Only state-owned media outlets are allowed in. The only reporting that was evident was an edited, delayed broadcast on state television, showing Fidel in a blue-nylon Adidas jacket, surveying the proceedings at the Palacio de las Convenciones, looking frail and gaunt.

Shortly before our trip, Fidel had suddenly reappeared, like Banquo’s ghost, to rail against President Obama’s visit, saying, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.”

The retired leader, whose younger brother, Raul, was reaffirmed as president and first secretary at the Congress, accused Obama of “sweet-talking” the Cuban people during his visit in a recent opinion piece carried by all state-run media. 

“Every one of us ran the risk of a heart attack listening to these words,” Castro said in his column, dismissing Obama’s comments as “honey-coated” and exhorting Cubans never to forget the many U.S. cabals to overthrow his Communist government. 

So, in the face of extreme poverty and a repressive and mysterious regime, is there change in Cuba? Is there hope?

The answer is a cautious yes. And it lies in Cuba’s social and education systems and in its arts. Cubans are fiercely proud of their artists—their dancers, their musicians, their poets.

We saw numerous performances, including collaborations with members of the U.S. President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities—Usher, Dave Matthews, and Smokey Robinson—who were traveling with us. There were discussions with leaders of Cuban cinema and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry; Afro-Cuban religious drumming for the Santeria ceremony; and a visit to the oldest recording studio, where Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, and the Buena Vista Social Club have all recorded.

There was also a magnificent performance of Vivaldi and Piazzolla by the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, a string ensemble of primarily young women, their dazzling virtuosity as evident as their joy and pride in performing for us. They smiled and moved to the music as they played, some tossing their long, liquid, black hair.  (Pictured left, a young Cuban violinist practices at the Instituto Superior des Artes.

The most moving aspect of the trip was a visit to an elementary school in the heart of Havana. Here, the President’s Committee’s Turnaround Arts program, which works to bring artists to underserved schools throughout the U.S., brought actor John Lloyd Young, Usher, and actress Alfre Woodard to the school.

The children, impeccably dressed in blue-and-white uniforms, were riveted by their American guests. No slumping or eye-rolling or yawning. Their toothbrushes and dingy facecloths hung in perfect order against the peeling paint of the classroom wall. Their teachers seemed extremely loving and encouraging. One of our committee members spoke to a third-grade class. 

“So, what do you like most about your country?” he asked through an interpreter.

“Nature,” said one child.

“Music,” said another.

“What about your heroes. Do you like any of them?”

Silence.

“Fidel?”

Silence.

Finally, one young boy raised his hand timidly and ventured “José Martí,” the revered national poet, long dead, one of whose poems comprise the lyrics to the unofficial national anthem, “Guantanamera.”

Our last night was spent at the fabulous Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the former headquarters of the city’s electricity company. It’s a space brimming with avant-garde painting and photography, performance art, dancing, singing, and, that night, an abundance of mojitos.

While the Cuban people remain proud of such remarkably vibrant centers as this one, others can’t conceal their excitement at America coming to town. (Pictured left: although the sale of Coca-Cola and all U.S. goods are prohibited, pre-Revolution metal signs adorn restaurant walls.)

 The Cubans we met informally—drivers, guides, hotel staff—were delighted and bursting with pride about the fact that Fast and Furious 8 is scheduled to film in Havana soon. And about rumors that an episode of “The Kardashians” is to be shot here as well.

“You know, that’s not really America, or what a lot of Americans are like,” I said meekly to one Kardashian enthusiast.

“Oh, we like them. We are looking forward to these things. It is the future.”

One can’t help but wince at the thought of what aspects of American culture will be visited on these lovely people. As we were leaving, we heard that the first Carnival cruise ship to dock in Havana was due the following week. 

Is there a middle ground between derelict dorms and the Kardashians? Between a state-controlled television and “Naked and Afraid”? Between Cubans’ pride in their national poet and arts and our own national malaise and anger and cynicism?

Cubans have done so much with so little for so long. One can’t help but hope for an end to the embargo (which Cubans insist on calling el bloqueo or “the blockade”) and the end to an era in which this island, so close to “the enemy of the North,” as we are still known in some quarters, will be fully normalized.

Perhaps the answer lies in Cubans’ generous appreciation of all types of art. They are extremely proud of the fact that Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote here. His house, Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), is serenely pristine and lovingly preserved with his animal trophies, paintings, fishing tackle, and personal library of 9,000 books. One feels a kind of benediction for the Cuban people in a line from The Old Man and the Sea, set, of course, in Cuba: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” 


More photos:

 Smokey Robinson with Kim Taylor.

Dave Matthews, his family, and Henry Taylor (Matthews performed in spontaneous jam sessions with Cuban musicians, including acclaimed singer-songwriter Carlos Varela.)

Henry Taylor in a traditional Cuban taxi (a convertible 1956 Ford Fairlane) with pals, including Dave Matthews’s twins Grace and Stella.

Tapas at San Cristobal, one of Cuba’s best-known paladares (privately run restaurants in people’s homes.)

A poster of the Castro family genealogy at the school.

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January 2019

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Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

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View map »


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More information

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Cost: Free

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Cost: Free

Where:
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370 Beach Road
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View map »


Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
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View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
View map »


Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

More information

Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
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View map »


Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
Website »

More information

Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
View map »


Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

More information

Join us for a conversation between collector Jeffrey Horvitz and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., (Curator, The Horvitz Collection and The J.E. Horvitz Consultative Curator, Department of Drawings, Division...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield University Art Museum
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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A French Affair: Drawings and Paintings from The Horvitz Collection will be on view in the Bellarmine Hall Galleries from January 25 - March 29, 2019; an Opening Reception will take place on...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield University Art Museum
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Grab a glass of wine and join us in exploring the basics of drawing the figure with artist and Aldrich staff member Noah Steinman. With a live model as inspiration, use a variety of materials such...

Cost: $12; $10.80 member

Where:
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
258 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Jampa Mackenzie Stewart of Valley Spirit and Wellness Center in Washington Depot, CT presents TaiChi & Meditation an Introduction.  Join us for a...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library
5 Wykeham Road
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Margaret Ferguson

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Thursday, Jan. 24 Author Talk: Stephanie Land - Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive, 7 – 8:30 p.m. Maid is showing up on almost every best of, must read, don't miss list of...

Cost: free

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
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Members and guests are invited to join us for the Election of Trustees, followed by an artist talk by eight photographers with work in the current exhibit. Visit our website at...

Cost: 0

Where:
Carriage Barn Arts Center
681 South Ave.
Waveny Park
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Join New Morning Market’s new knitting club! We’re crafting wearable items for Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury and welcome all levels to join! Instructors will be on-hand for beginners. Yarn,...

Cost: Free - registration requested

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
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Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

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The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
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Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
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Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
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We invite families to drop-in and enjoy interactive pop-up activity stations, gallery games, and art projects around the KMA.  Get inspired by Outrageous Ornament: Extreme Jewelry in the 21st...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Katonah Museum
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
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Calling all fans of Scottish food and Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series. Don your tartan, make like Jamie’s clan motto and be ready! You’re invited to an amazing Outlander...

Cost: 100.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
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Friday, Jan. 25 Wilton Library Mini Golf Tourney for Adults, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. The kids had so much fun at last year’s Mini Golf fundraiser, that Wilton Library is holding one for adults only...

Cost: $50 and up

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
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Original members of the Billy Joel Band featuring Liberty DeVitto on drums, Richie Cannata on saxophone and Russell Javors on rhythm guitar. The band recorded and toured extensively with Billy Joel...

Cost: $40

Where:
The Ridgefield Playhouse
80 East Ridge
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Telephone: (203) 438-5795
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Born from humble beginnings in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, CT The Alpaca Gnomes cut their teeth in the neighborhood bar scene by playing marathon shows filled with originals and a wide...

Cost: $15.00 - $20.00

Where:
Wall Street Theater
71 Wall Street
Norwalk, CT  06850
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Sponsor: Jeanne Moore
Telephone: (203) 831-5004
Contact Name: Jeanne Moore
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Are you a lifelong with a passion for sharing history? Find out about becoming a Museum Docent! Docents are trained volunteer educators who present guided tours and other education programs to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Bring the baby and enjoy a lively conversation inspired by the art on view. Enjoy light snacks while socializing with newly-made friends. Crying babies welcome and activities provided for older...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price with Museum admission: Free

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
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Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
View map »


Website »

More information

Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
View map »


Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

More information

Winter Guided Hike @ Woodcock Nature Center Saturday January 26th, 10-11:30am, FREE ​ Join Mr. Sam for a hike where we'll investigate whats going on in nature in the winter season and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Woodcock Nature Center
56 Deer Run Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Woodcock Nature Center
Telephone: (203) 762-7280
Contact Name: Sam Nunes
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The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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Saturday, Jan. 26 Mini Golf Family Day in the Stacks at Wilton Library, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Wilton Library will hold its 2nd mini golf fundraising event. There will be food (each paid admission will...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
Website »

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  Touchon transforms verbal language into handsome geometric compilations, to reveal the beauty and musicality of language characterized by warmly colored shapes, interlocking irregular grids and...

Cost: free

Where:
Canfin Gallery
39 Main Street
Tarrytown, NY  10591
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Sponsor: Canfin Gallery
Telephone: 914-332-4554
Contact Name: Jean-Claude Canfin
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Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
View map »


Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
Website »

More information

Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
View map »


Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

More information

Saturday, January 26th from 1:00 - 2:00 PM, Ages 4+ Attend for groovy crafts, snacks, games, and more in celebration of the Pete the Cat book series. This event is free and no registration is...

Cost: Free

Where:
Keeler Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
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Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
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Hudson Chorale, the area’s largest mixed voice chorus, is poised to please.  The group will begin its 2019 season with two matinee concerts on Saturday, January 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm and Sunday,...

Cost: Advance Sale-$25; Door-$30; Students-$10.

Where:
The Chapel at Maryknoll
55 Ryder Rd
Ossining, NY  10562
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Sponsor: Hudson Chorale
Telephone: 1-800-838-3006
Contact Name: Anne Norum
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Join us for a very special evening of music from these four accomplished singer songwriters: David Ray, Mike Latini, Dave Goldenberg, George Mallas.  

Cost: 20.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
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Join us for another incredible evening of music featuring four local singer songwriters performing original music! Doors open at 7pm in New Morning’s handicapped accessible Community Room on the...

Cost: Free

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
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