Artists’ studios to become assisted living dwellings

It has been said that artists follow the roaches in their search for the ideal studio space. For the artists who currently work out of the old F.D. Graves building at 210 State St., it looks like they will soon be following the roaches again.

Presently used as rented studio space by a number of local artists, the building is slated to be renovated by Liberty Community Services, a New Haven housing agency, into low-cost housing for individuals with assisted-living needs. While many would consider it to be a dilapidated structure, the building is known in the New Haven arts community as a place where widely renowned artists formerly held studio space.

Originally owned by the F.D. Graves and Son Inc. cigar company, the building was rented to artists when the company left New Haven.

During the early 1990s, Dick Graves, a relative of F.D. Graves, unsuccessfully attempted to sell the building to the artists who worked there.

Frances “Bitsie” Clark, the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, said the costs proved to be too high for the artists.

“At this particular point, the artists could not put down money for this,” Clark said. “Dick would have loved to have sold to artists, but they could not afford it.”

In the mid-1990s, after Graves had offered the building to the artists, Liberty Community Services purchased the building to renovate it into low-cost housing units. It is not clear, however, when Liberty Community Services will begin work on the housing units.

Local artist Jan Cunningham said she and the other artists who currently work out of the building have been anticipating the day they would be displaced.

“For five years, we’ve been dealing with uncertainty about not knowing how long we were going to be here,” she said.

Steve DiGiovanni, another local artist who has studio space at the State St. site, said he felt fortunate to have had the space for as long as he has.

“I’m only happy that we’ve been there as long as we’ve been,” DiGiovanni said.

Officials at Liberty Community Services could not be reached for comment.

The artists who currently work out of the building said they have a deep attachment to the building. Matthew Feiner, a renowned local artist, said he remembered walking past the building frequently wondering how to get studio space there.

“This place was legend,” Feiner said. “All these incredible artists had studio space here. When I got offered the space, I jumped right at it.”

Despite the lack of finished walls and decrepit conditions, Cunningham said the building is ideal for artists.

“I think when artists are in an area, they often take space that other people don’t want,” Cunningham said. “Artists are forced in a way to see the possibilities of things — to make something out of nothing. They bring their innovative and creative energies and fix the space up.”

Cunningham added that the building is more amenable to studio space than supportive living space.

“I personally don’t feel it’s a good location for assisted living,” she said. “I feel that the building has a good use now, but I don’t own the building.”

But Feiner praised Liberty Community Services’ plans for the structure.

“They’re saviors. They’re heroes,” Feiner said. “I reckon I’d be one of their biggest cheerleaders.”

Nevertheless, the artists said they feel sad about the prospect of having to move in the near future.

“No one is happy about it. It’s going to be hard,” Feiner said. “My studio is like a shrine. This has been a great studio for me.”

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