Your friendly neighborhood artists and activists

Diana Ofosu ’12 works her magic inside the storefront at the corner of College and Corner. Come join her at the People's Arts Collective!

Beneath a darkened sky and a steady drizzle, one storefront on the corner of College and Crown streets emits a warm glow. Two silhouetted figures sit in the window beside a cluster of rainbow balloons. Others enter in groups, shaking rain off their jackets.

The date is Oct. 15, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Occupy New Haven, and people are celebrating. The sign on the storefront’s window glass reads “The People’s Arts Collective.”

Inside, music plays, and the atmosphere is festive. On the left wall of the room, a large chalk-drawn calendar marks events such as “Gender Fluidity Workshop” and “Free Skool Launch Party.” Below the blackboard is a shelf stuffed with books from across genres, and on top of the bookshelf are stacks of pamphlets and “zines” — small, self-published texts released by groups to spread their ideas efficiently and with low cost. A corkboard is crammed with flyers for events, parties and protests across New Haven.

Kenneth Reveiz ’12, one of the three founders of the People’s Arts Collective, is naturally at the party ­— sitting on a folding chair and chatting with some members of the Occupy movement. Only a few months ago, in August of this year, Reveiz, Gabriel DeLeon ’14 and Diana Ofosu ’12 came to this storefront. They brought with them folding chairs, used books and a vision of a new meeting place for the people of New Haven.

According to its website and its handmade poster in the front window, the People’s Arts Collective of New Haven is “a community of artists seeking to animate and advance social, racial, economic and environmental justice in New Haven through art-making and art-making processes. We particularly encourage the creative agency of women, queer-identifying folks, people of color and youth. We emphasize the collaborative, intergenerational and site-specific.”

It’s a long mission statement, but when asked what exactly PAC is meant to be, Reveiz begins his answer in simple terms. PAC’s potential, he says, is in its role as a movement space. His hope is for PAC to be what a good community center should be: a meeting place for planning and collaborating on projects that will have an impact, either locally or more broadly. Reveiz notes that the concept of such a place is not particularly new, but there’s a lack of it in today’s New Haven. “In the ’60s and ’70s there was this coffee shop called Bread and Roses,” he said. “It was where activists chilled and hung out. It had lots of newspaper clippings on the wall. A lot of campaigns and activism centralized there,” he added. “I’d like [PAC] to be something like that.”

But Reveiz prefaces his answer by saying that each of the founders would have a different response for his or her vision for PAC. This variation among the three organizers is one of the organization’s strengths. “It’s a mistake to say there’s one way of doing something effectively,” Reveiz claimed. “To be prescriptive is to be politically and socially illiterate.”

According to Ofosu, each of the three founders is, in his or her unique way, part artist and part activist. The People’s Arts Collective is not the first project Reveiz, Ofosu and DeLeon have worked on together. Rather, it had its beginnings in an earlier collaboration that drew on each of the founders’ mediums: the Spring 2012 production of “Osama Play.” Reveiz, a writer, wrote the play; Ofosu, a visual artist, designed the set and DeLeon, a performer, directed the show. Looking back, the next step seemed only natural: to try to extend this “performance space” beyond acting and beyond Yale. The concept began as The People’s Theater but over the course of a year evolved to what it is today: a collective that fosters creative agency among people, allowing them to make change. But what exactly does that look like?

“We’re still in our brick and mortar stage,” Ofosu begins when describing the roles PAC has been taking on in New Haven. Ofosu’s hope for PAC also centers on the many potential uses of the rooms they have begun developing. She envisions “an autonomous space that could function as an alternative to Yale and other set spaces.” Ofosu is a visual artist, and she is excited about outfitting the collective alongside people of the community. When talking about one project in particular, Ofosu’s voice grows more animated. “There’s this amazing woman who’s in the New Haven scene … and in the middle of a casual conversation she goes, ‘You know what New Haven is missing? An independent press bookstore’,” she says. The idea had not even been on Ofosu’s radar before the two women spoke, but the project is entering its nascent stages, beginning with an in-house library while the two begin to work on the legal side of getting the store running.

PAC is already working with many groups across the city on projects that range from raising AIDS awareness to protesting police brutality. On the back wall of the College and Crown space is a large arrow drawn in crayon, which leads to a large glass case. Inside, the objects range from the mundane (clothes, books) to some more peculiar knickknacks (a Norman Rockwell print of a girl with a black eye). This is the “Free Pile,” a box of stuff people can take from and donate to. The Free Pile was a collaboration between PAC and Hans Schoenburg ’10, one of the co-founders of GiftFlow, a nonprofit website where people can give away possessions they no longer need to other people in their community.

The party on Monday evening also symbolized the beginning of a working relationship between PAC and Occupy New Haven. Many of the Occupy members were already familiar with the PAC, but for others, this was their first time coming to the space. Amanda Roberts, one of the faces behind the online information hub “re-know.info” and a member of the Occupy movement, had only asked last minute to use the space for the party, but the organizers welcomed them.

“I feel like a lot of their missions … and the change they want to see in New Haven lines up with ours,” Roberts says. PAC, despite its physical space and its energy, could still run the risk of not having enough manpower to carry out its many ideas. Roberts says, “Occupy is a lot of willing people that at times doesn’t have a point of focus … [PAC and Occupy] seem like they’d mesh really well. It could be really responsive to our manpower.”

At this point, it seems the People’s Arts Collective can adapt to fill many roles in the community, but Roberts’ observation about the importance of manpower raises another question: can the collective be sustained? According to the organizers, the response from New Haven has been warm, with sometimes as many as 20 people coming to PAC’s open hours to speak with the organizers. The second party of the year had around 200 people come throughout the night. Over 20 people have signed up to teach a class at the Free Skool, yet another way PAC is reaching out to the community for collaboration. Launching in November, the space will be used for people to hold free classes that anyone can sign up for — subject matter ranges from sewing to disposable photography. When asked about the weekly literary and artistic workshops listed on PAC’s website, Reveiz’s response is matter-of-fact: “Oh, we need to update the website. No one’s been coming to those.”

It’s almost a paradox: somehow, PAC has taken the active approach to reaching out to New Haven while, at the same time, maintaining a go-with-the-flow philosophy. According to Ofosu, some cases like the Free Skool require an active reach-out effort, but, at other times, it makes more sense to just let people come as they please. This way of letting things happen organically, she says, opens up a lot of possibilities. The element of spontaneity is necessary for a project that can go in so many directions. “Also, everything is kind of fun,” Ofosu says. “Every day there’s always something different going on, and people around here are really stoked … [PAC’s] just forming. It’s important for us to make things happen that they want to happen. It’s their community, too.”

According to Reveiz, the main concern now is with funding, but the organizers do not seem too worried. Right now, the collective uses crowdsourcing through indiegogo.com as a way to cover operating costs and materials for their activities. The organizers also throw “Fun-raising” parties at the space, and a friend has offered to help write grants. Another obstacle the group might encounter in the future is the issue of staying in the storefront. Having a space is integral to the collective’s function, but Reveiz raises the concern, “The issue is less about getting kicked out … [The building] might get razed down or something. It’s one storefront in a row of five being used. There might not be enough economic activity,” he said. Though Reveiz does not worry about PAC getting evicted, the sublease for the space expires at the end of the month.

The storefront is leased by the Co-op Center for Creativity, a high school across the street from the collective that fosters creative talent in its students. Helen Kauder, the Co-op’s founder, helped Reveiz, Ofosu and DeLeon find the space and sometimes drops by to visit. “It’s not a long-term lease,” Kauder says. But she praises the work the collective’s organizers are doing, especially in connecting the youth of the city to the arts through student-writing hubs and play workshops. “I think they’re doing a phenomenal thing, and they’re really actively using the space … It’s only a sublease. But given the way things are going, we’re going to try hard to make it continue.” When asked about the future, Reveiz says he is committed long-term. Ofosu agrees, “It should just develop as it seems organic and disassemble as it seems organic. But the longer we work on it, the more committed we are.”

PAC holds open hours every weekday evening. From College Street, the organizers can be seen sitting in the whimsically-lit storefront, chatting with any locals who drop by. Tuesday evening, the night after Occupy’s anniversary party, a New Haven resident named Merv Brandy comes by to chat. He holds a notebook and talks and laughs with Reveiz, excited for a new project he wants to begin. “I’m playing around with an idea for a kickback for gay youths in the city. They could come here after school and be creative, maybe do some performance art and put on demonstrations in the city,” Brandy explains. Reveiz, sitting nearby, agrees that it’s important, “especially at this age, to know there are other queer people around — not just in media — who are doing things like organizing and sharing their experiences.“ Brandy nods, “It’d be great for the city and great for the youth.”

The two continue to chat. Outside, a woman stops and reads the mission statement in the window. Curious, she walks into the space, and says, “Hi! What is this place?” She introduces herself as Joane, and she takes oil painting lessons at Gateway. She had stopped in specifically to ask about the usage of the word “queer” in the mission statement outside the entrance. “Is this only for people of color or gay people?” she asks Reveiz and Brandy. Reveiz laughs and answers, “No, but there’s a lot of us here.” Joane stays for a while longer, talking and looking around the space. As she leaves, she takes a piece of paper with PAC’s information to show her painting club. Reveiz tells her, “If you all ever want to use our space for something, just let me know.”

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