Visitors to Artspace, the Ninth Square’s proud outpost of artistic innovation, will notice that several important faces have changed over the summer among the gallery’s staff. But it will be harder to find any major changes to the spirit of openness and originality that has ensured its relevance over the past 23 years.
Now under the leadership of a new executive director, Leslie Shaffer, Artspace will likely cleave to the nonprofit’s core mission: to contribute to the Elm City’s cultural wealth by showcasing the work and ideas of New Haven’s diverse contemporary artists. Shaffer assumed her new role at Artspace in early July, replacing longtime executive director Helen Kauder. Though Shaffer’s prior job as Curator of Education at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., placed her squarely in the midst of the high-profile art world, she said she views her position at Artspace as an opportunity to be more involved in the cultivation of up-and-coming contemporary talents.
“I really missed working with emerging artists when I was at the Corcoran,” Shaffer said. “Artspace has a reputation for supporting a community of working and living artists, and it’s also really flexible and really current.”
Kauder’s departure coincided with that of gallery director Denise Markonish, leaving Shaffer with a virtually blank slate on which to design a new Artspace team — a challenge she said she welcomes.
“We’re basically starting from scratch, building up a brand new staff,” Shaffer said. “In a way, it’s nice to be able to do it now, before I’ve gotten completely settled.”
Other new arrivals to the Artspace staff include a new director of communications, Jemma Williams, and a director of operations, Trina Learned. Neither is a stranger to the unique blend of whimsy and audacity that characterizes Artspace’s programs: Learned said she has been a patron for many years, and one of Williams’s own pieces — a dress made entirely of 166 zippers — was featured in the gallery’s recent “101 Dresses” exhibition.
The position of gallery director remains unfilled for now. Shaffer said there is no need to rush the process because the gallery has already scheduled exhibitions through December 2008. Learned said this time cushion will be a welcome luxury, and the new hire will likely reflect Shaffer’s personal style of leadership.
“This is a great opportunity for Artspace to take its own temperature,” Learned said. “Helen Kauder was a great director, but Leslie will probably bring her own approach and her own set of strengths to the job.”
Even with new personnel on board, however, many long-standing Artspace programs will persist — most notably City Wide Open Studios, which, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary this October, has risen to the informal status of New Haven institution. Hundreds of contemporary artists from the greater New Haven area will get to display their work in public-friendly studio spaces, including Artspace itself, throughout the month.
Williams said City Wide Open Studios is commensurate with Artspace’s larger goal of nurturing a vibrant local artistic community.
“We’d like to focus on bringing more people in and creating more exhibition space for local artists,” she said. “We definitely want to reach out to more members of the New Haven community, and we’d also like to go farther afield — maybe get some more New York people here, too.”
In a city with two major art museums, Artspace stands out in its efforts to capture the latest artistic efforts as they unfold. Shaffer said that these efforts are a key to the gallery’s continued success.
“We want Artspace to be fast in keeping up with contemporary trends — maybe not as fast as some New York galleries, but certainly faster than the museums,” she said. “There are a lot of cutting-edge artists in New Haven.”