Arts for all

Christopher Arnott has covered the arts in New Haven, as a reporter and critic, since 1985.

Courtesy Artspace

Courtesy Artspace

A reception at the Artspace gallery marks the opening of New Haven's annual City-Wide Open Studios, in which artists display work in their workspaces and in offices, schools, and factories. View full image

You could argue that New Haven was destined to be an arts town, even more than it was meant to be a university town. F. Scott Fitzgerald did, in his short story "Head and Shoulders":

  • When way back in colonial days the hardy pioneers had come to a bald place in Connecticut and asked of each other, 'Now, what shall we build here?' the hardiest one among 'em had answered: 'Let's build a town where theatrical managers can try out musical comedies!' How afterward they founded Yale College there, to try the musical comedies on, is a story every one knows.

The local arts scene certainly complements the university's own cultural contributions. The New Haven arts can be as inclusive as Yale's can be exclusive. While the university prides itself on small, intensive arts programs with highly competitive admissions processes, New Haven offers unjuried exhibitions for hundreds of artists at a time, and summer festivals where some of the state's best known troubadours rub shoulders with neighborhood gospel choirs, double-dutch troupes, and cover bands. Performance space is affordable, audiences eager and open-minded. It's easy for novices to break into the friendly-not-cliquey music and theater scenes, where originality and risk-taking are prized over slavish recreation of the latest national trends.

New Haven long ago claimed, and has never been seriously challenged for, the mantle of "cultural capital of Connecticut." It's a hard-won honor, considering the city was founded by Puritans, and that public entertainment as innocuous as circuses was still being challenged by New Haven's Court of Common Council as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

The tide changed rapidly. Even if Yale had not decided in 1716 to move to New Haven, the city would have marked out its place on the cultural map thanks to location, location, location. Less than three hours' drive from Boston and less than two from New York, New Haven has been a convenient stop for touring acts for centuries, from musicians in the colonial era to vaudevillians at the turn of the twentieth century and slews of rock bands today. The Shubert Theater opened in 1914 and quickly established itself as a safe place to preview and revise new plays and musicals away from the cloying and carping of the New York critics. The hundreds of successes nurtured by the Shubert include the best-known works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Tennessee Williams, and Neil Simon.

The proximity to New York and Boston has also meant the city can sustain more arts organizations, importing and exporting talent along the commuter lines. New Haven has one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the country, and it maintains a sizable modern dance community for its size. But it's the theater throng that is most impressive. Most states are blessed if they have a single regional theater strong enough to lure major stars and get noticed by the Tony Awards. New Haven has two -- the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Long Wharf -- and there are two others within an hour's drive (the Goodspeed Opera House and Hartford Stage).

The city also harbors several small theater troupes. Actors from the community theaters have used walk-on parts at the Long Wharf and the Rep to gain points toward Actors' Equity union membership and hasten their moves to New York or Hollywood. Some make the leap directly from New Haven to Off-Broadway -- or better. Daniel Sarnelli cut his teeth with the local group Naked Theatre and then, in 1997, got a small role in the Long Wharf's East Coast premiere of a little-known play called Wit. After the play won the Pulitzer, he stayed on for the show's New York run and then won a more prominent part in its national tour.

Sometimes proximity to larger metropolises can be a negative. Art collectors like to buy their canvases in New York City, so New Haven has seldom been able to support more than a handful of commercial art galleries. On the nonprofit side of the visual arts equation, however, the city is saturated with small galleries, as well as organizations that promote fresh opportunities for the many practicing artists living in town. Artists' colonies have sprung up in poorer parts of town, like the dilapidated lofts of Daggett Street, or wherever apartment complexes sit atop noisy bars and clubs. And the community got a boost when the Arts Loft West development was built in Westville, with nine affordable housing units for income-challenged professional artists.

Every year the nonprofit gallery and general arts cheerleading organization Artspace holds City-Wide Open Studios, a multi-day event in which artists open their workspaces and display their work to the general public. The art-lovers' trek from studio to studio is assisted with directories, maps, special events, and bike and bus tours. Many other cities hold open studios, but Artspace changed the rules when it realized how many local artists were excluded from the program because they didn't have studios that could accommodate visitors. So a volunteer army of accessible-arts advocates formed, and schools, office buildings, and abandoned factories were refurbished overnight into temporary galleries. That effort has subsided somewhat in recent years as Artspace concentrates on building its legitimacy as a year-round downtown gallery. But at its height in the late 1990s CWOS arranged exhibition space for hundreds of artists and created an arts party atmosphere that required three weekends and dozens of locations to contain.

New Haven also raised the bar on summer arts festivals. Many U.S. cities hold music festivals, and a few add theater, dance, and academic lectures to the mix. But the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, born in 1996, does more by following the European model: dozens of events at numerous locations, spread in leisurely style over a two-week schedule, along with -- as an anchoring outdoor presence -- free entertainment two or three times a day, or all afternoon, on the Green.

The festival provides a major tourism boost to the downtown economy during the ghost-town doldrums of late June. Whether it will survive after this year, now that Connecticut governor Jodi Rell has threatened its state funding, remains to be seen. Its legacy, however, is secure. It has hosted world and North American premieres; Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen opened here, with its original British cast, a year before hitting Broadway. Headline performances have included Little Richard, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a major Martha Graham revival, and a critically acclaimed Spanish flamenco star. And the rest of the entertainment ranges from performance artists, street theater, and poetry slams to Chinese opera singers and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. As for "Ideas," that part of the festival brings in lectures, discussions, and tours, whether on national and international topics or New Haven's own social, environmental, and political issues.

So arts-identified is the city that one of New Haven's favorite artistic subjects has become . . . itself. In 1996, Arts and Ideas commissioned the New York City-based puppet troupe Great Small Works to produce a town history. Last year, the Yale Cabaret staged a piece called Sidewalk Opera, by composer Jana Hoglund ’08MFA with Patricia McGregor ’09MFA and Jacob Padron ’08MFA. It was devised from interviews with clients of the St. Thomas More soup kitchen and structured around a day in the life of Annette Walton, the street-corner vendor who has sold carnations to almost everyone who ever walked through downtown.

But the ultimate New Havenism might be the 2005 set of trading cards -- "Local Characters/Downtown New Haven," masterminded by Leslie Kuo ’03 -- that immortalized such arts fixtures as Roger Uihlein, who runs Neverending Books; abstract painter Eric Staats; and street poet Margaret Holloway ’80MFA (known for reciting Shakespeare and Chaucer for pocket change). Too parochial? Too insider? Not for the New Yorker, which covered the cards in 2006.

For better or worse, Yale has not always taken a deep interest in its host city's arts scene. Townies have variously characterized this attitude as snobbery, obliviousness, academic myopia, or the mutual aww-who-needs-'em-anyhow segregation of town and gown. For Frances "Bitsie" Clark, the cultural divide between Yale and New Haven has been happily dissolving since the mid-1980s, and she gives the credit to President Levin. Clark headed the Arts Council of Greater New Haven for 19 years, then became alderwoman for Ward 7 (which encompasses the Audubon and College streets arts districts). "When I came to the arts council in 1983, there was a great arts community, doing incredible things. But they didn't all work together. It was not connected." Worse, "the university was an enclave. They always had this attitude that Yale didn't relate to the [New Haven] community. When Levin became president, that all changed. He said, 'We have to pay attention to the environment.'"

Now there are endless collaborations -- workshops, summer classes, joint productions -- a constant give-and-take among city and university arts resources. Yale students and high school students collaborate on murals. The Yale School of Music stages its major opera productions at the Shubert, and the New Haven Symphony performs in Woolsey Hall. Rap idol Ludacris spoke at a packed Branford College master's tea earlier this year, thanks to Greg Morehead, a New Haven alderman who drums for Ludacris's back-up band.

Bitsie Clark, too, has been turned into art, impersonated onstage at the Yale Rep by Herbert Siguenza of the California-based comedy trio Culture Clash. Siguenza seized on Clark's comment about seeking election during the Yale strike of 2002 -- "When I ran for office, I never wore blue." New Haven, as F. Scott Fitzgerald knew, has its own color, contrast, ironic juxtaposition, intelligent audiences, innate talent: everything you need for a good show.  

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