Art displays to fill empty storefronts

While an empty storefront in downtown New Haven may look like a bleak reminder of the economic recession, artists like Martha Lewis ART ’93 see a blank canvas.

An artist who works in several media, Lewis is considering applying for a new pilot program allowing local and out-of-state artists to fill vacant stores with new creative projects.

Like the city’s “Project Storefronts” to showcase art projects in empty store windows, University Properties has its own, separate but similar program to fill empty storefronts with displays.
David Demres
Like the city’s “Project Storefronts” to showcase art projects in empty store windows, University Properties has its own, separate but similar program to fill empty storefronts with displays.

City officials who designed the program, called “Project Storefronts,” want passersby to see a music lesson or an artist’s business instead of a dark window. The city is asking artists to apply with ideas for what to put in these spaces. For $500, artists will be expected to fill the storefront with a temporary business or activity, such as selling handmade goods or doing web-design.

“We are looking for [projects that are] the most sustainable, [that are] going to drive the most foot traffic, that have the potential to do something in the long term,” said Barbara Lamb, the city’s director of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The project is currently in its infancy and began soliciting applications from artists this month. Once the city accepts proposals from artists, it will install the initial projects for three to six months, Lamb said in an e-mail. Through the pilot program, the city hopes to fill between six and eight storefronts, half downtown and half in the Fair Haven neighborhood, she added.

The project, led by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs along with the Office of Economic Development and the New Haven Economic Development Corporation, is aimed at helping artists who need the space, reviving neighborhoods and possibly attracting potential tenants to rent the store.

“It’s really the way of the future where creative people can help mend problems in society,” said Margaret Bodell, the Department of Cultural Affairs’ public art coordinator.

“Project Storefronts” is not completely original. Lamb said her interest was piqued by a story about how a depressed St. Louis mall filled their vacant spaces this year with dance studios and galleries.

While Lamb said in an e-mail that “Project Storefronts” does not plan on filling any University Properties storefronts, University Properties is already occupying their vacant storefronts with displays from their other tenants and has even exhibited work from Yale School of Architecture students, Associate Vice President and University Properties Director Abigail Rider said in an e-mail.

Even so, Rider said, University Properties cannot give their properties to groups that want to use them for a long period of time because they have to keep them ready for potential tenants to visit and purchase.

Lewis, the artist, said she was intrigued by the program and might apply to work on a large-scale, temporary project that she would not have room for in her small studio space. But artist Zachary Keeting said it would be more exciting if it were a non-commercial venture, something, as he put it, “outside the capitalist mode.”

“Project Storefront” hopes to match artists who are interested in starting a business with the city’s Small Business staff so they can test an idea that they might want to pursue, Lamb said.

Preference is given to New Haven artists, but applicants do not need to be based in Connecticut.

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