When the 1912 Lawrence, Mass., mill strikers carried a banner that read, “We want bread and roses, too,” they affirmed a belief among progressives that beautiful things, the arts and nature, were an integral part of life, as vital as a living wage. It was a thought that Lillian Wald had enunciated clearly almost from the start of her work founding and running the Henry Street Settlement House, and it still guides the work of that institution more than a century later.
The art that she envisioned was not kitschy, feel-good stuff. In 1915 the Henry Street Playhouse began a long-lasting partnership with The Neighborhood Playhouse, one of the ground-breaking “little theater” groups of its day. So when the sixth annual “Keys to the Future” concerts, a series of three programs highlighting contemporary piano music at its most inventive, comes to its new home at the Abrons Art Center May 24-26, it will be nothing less than a case of the avant-garde coming home (466 Grand St., 8 p.m.,  598-0400, www.keystothefuture.org). In fact, the Abrons Art Center is the landmark building that originally housed The Neighborhood Playhouse, nearly a century ago.
It’s a sort of homecoming for Joseph Rubenstein, the founder and executive director of “Keys to the Future,” as well.
“My grandparents lived on the Lower East Side, near the Settlement House, when they first came from Ellis Island,” he says. “It’s such a culturally rich neighborhood with a huge history to it, and the Settlement House is such a prime example of Jewish philanthropy through the decades. I’m thrilled to be part of that tradition.”
Rubenstein, a pianist-composer who grew up in New Jersey, near the city, finds it unsurprising that the social workers and community organizers who ran and staffed the Henry Street facilities knew from the start that they would have arts programs completely integrated into their other important works.
“Considering the Jewish tradition in the arts, it makes sense to me they would have taken it for granted that artistic expression was a part of what makes life worth living,” he says.
David Garza, Henry Street’s current executive director, took the connection between social work and the arts a step further in a telephone interview last week.
“Lillian Wald really believed in the transformative power of the arts,” Garza said emphatically. “She believed that regardless of your position in society the arts were vital to the human spirit — as necessary as food, shelter and clothing.”
Garza noted that the wide-ranging arts programs that the organization offers are “inextricably connected to our mission, and we try to weave them into all of our programming, whether it’s in classes offered in our after-school programs, or our shelter residents learning to express themselves through drama or our seniors coming to events we host.”
What has set the “Keys to the Future” events apart from other piano festivals — and one should remember that, as Rubenstein himself observes, “New York City is the piano capital of the world” — is the wildly variegated musical offerings that he has programmed each year. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the festival’s creation.
“I proposed this concept in 2005 while I was teaching at Greenwich House School of Music, of getting together really good pianists and having them play solo contemporary music in a wide range of styles,” he recalls. “We had a two-night event and people really liked it, really liked the diversity of the program. So I decided to make it an annual event.”
Slowly, the organization has added more pieces. It has offered a series of spotlight concerts focusing on specific areas of contemporary piano music, including a selection of four-hand pieces in one recital and a program of the work of Frederic Rzewski performed by Lisa Moore. It has started a young artist’s competition, the winner of which performs in the festival itself.
The dilemmas facing residents of the Lower East Side have changed remarkably little since Henry Street was founded 118 years ago, although the client population has been remade many times through successive waves of immigration.
“We have been characterized as an agency that serves people living in poverty, whether they are new immigrants or long-time residences of the neighborhood,” David Garza said. “They didn’t have access to health care or employment or housing or education. As different waves of immigration have come through, we have modified our services and cultural competency to be able to make an impact on people’s lives. But the human condition is timeless.”
And there will always be a need for roses on the table next to the bread.