By Stephen Vargha
“We will give you idiomART because we don’t want it to be another Gringo joint that is a flash in the pan.”
With that statement from the founder Sara Koppler, Sarah Hanenbauer took the gauntlet and ran with it in 2021. The native of Bozeman, Montana had moved to Cuenca in 2009, but never imagined running the El Centro arts center.
“I am a newbie in so many ways. idiomART has been in Cuenca for four years and I have been here at idiomART for just one year,” she said.
Sarah H. (as her friends call her) moved to Cuenca as a 33-year-old pursuing her Spanish Education degree at Montana State University. “I had a voice in my head that told me to study in Ecuador,” she said. “The problem was I did not know where it was, so I pulled out a big atlas and had to go to the index to find it on the map.”
She laughs, reminiscing about the genesis of her journey from Big Sky Country to a country she loves. The first seven years were spent in Cuenca, and it took little time for the Montana native to become involved with the arts. “I feel so strongly in community art,” said Sarah. “It makes you feel that you are a part of it.”
That attitude got her involved leading the revitalization of Otorongo Plaza in 2013. “When we started the project, the area was known for drugs and crime. No one went there after 6 p.m.,” she said
Her project involved hundreds of people from one of the oldest barrios in Cuenca. The goal was to have mixed media art lining the stairs from the plaza up to Presidente Córdova. Sarah says it is something she is very proud of.
“We had neighbors and tourists helping put up tiles. Even Miss Ecuador came by to help,” she said. “Of course, she put up one tile, had photos taken, and took off.”
Her generosity did not end there. On April 16, 2016, a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Manabí province. At least 272 people were killed and 2,527 injured, mostly in the northwestern coastal area of the province.
For the next three years, Sarah H. lived in a small town between Canoa and Bahía de Caráquez. She did all sorts of things to help the people recover from the destructive earthquake before returning to Cuenca.
“After the coast, I felt that I had met my volunteering quota,” she said.
Two years later, one could say Sarah H. was volunteered to be the next leader of idiomART. “I had not been that involved in the expat community,” she said. “I knew if I was going to take over idiomART, it would be a huge change in my life.”
She contemplated her life that at the time that involved many small jobs with low pay. Sarah H. asked herself, “If I had my perfect world, what would it be?”
Because Sarah H. had organized several cultural events in Cuenca, and because she ran workshops as well as being heavily involved in the independent arts scene, she agreed to take over idiomART.
“I am glad I did, she said. “It has restored my faith in expats after the bad personal experiences I had with them.”
According to Sarah H., people who are involved in the arts are more open-minded about things. It is why she is trying to have idiomART be a place for all cultures and ages. Up until now, idiomART had mainly catered to English speaking Gringos.
To make it a reality, Sarah H. just moved idiomART from cramped quarters on the east side of El Centro to a two-story century-old house on Mariscal Lamar. “I am not sure of the age, but I am going to talk to the family which had it for several generations,” she said. “I want to find out its history and pass it along.”
The history Sarah H. does know is the building used to be Fishbon del Sur, a cultural arts center. “Theater arts was their main focus,” said Sarah H. “I had visited the building for several events, so I was very familiar with it.”
She has turned the first level, with its patrimonial checkered floor and huge skylight above, into a place to hold concerts and performances. “It is an indoor urban garden space with plants everywhere,” she said. “There are no hummingbirds or fountain, but it is a beautiful and comfortable space with lots of light. We have so much natural light.”
Artwork is on every wall downstairs, including a current show of paintings. “I want the artwork to make you feel good,” she said. Art studios are accessed off the main floor. Upstairs are offices and classrooms. Spanish is taught up there, and Sarah H. is hoping to begin English classes soon.
What may be rather unique is what Sarah H. calls the Artbnb. “It’s not going on Airbnb. I don’t want strangers,” she said. “it’s going to be for artists who need a room for a day, week or even a month.”
Sarah H. said it’s “cool” to be an artist and be surrounded by artists while visiting Cuenca.
Diversity is the goal for Sarah H. and idiomART. It is why she has begun cultural road trips that are conducted in Spanish. She said that if one does not know Spanish, she can help with the translations.
Advertising for idiomART is now being done in both Spanish and English. Sarah H. wants to emphasize idiomART is for everyone and wants the whole community to know what is going on.
“Concert music is the easiest language to understand. It is why idiomART’s music has brought in people from all cultures,” said Sarah H. “It is why I have become an ambassador, bridging the cultures.”
It seems to be working as Sarah H. claims the Grand Reopening of idiomART was a good mix of people. “If the opening is an indication, we are going in the right direction,” she said.
Now, Sarah H. wants to tweak the hours to make idiomART more accessible to everyone. “I want to have more nighttime hours for people who have to work,” she said. “Of course, I have to figure out a way to do that as I do not want to be working 10 to 12 hours every day.”
She hopes to have everything in place soon to make IdiomART an arts destination for one and all. The goal is to keep idiomART’s roots and sense of purpose but to expand upon the first four years.
“I think in the next year, we’re just going to see idiomART continue to be a success,” Sarah said. “It’s just going to continue to grow without losing that essence of being a place where you walk in the door, and you feel welcome. You feel comfortable; you get your cup of coffee; and you check it out.”
Photos by Stephen Vargha