The stark ground floor space in the Ninth Square’s Chamberlain building was transformed into a bustling gallery last Friday, touched both by the stylishness of SoHo and the intimacy of New Haven. Artists, students and community leaders like Mayor John DeStefano Jr. swarmed the room, chatting, sipping wine and admiring the works of 351 New Haven artists scheduled to display their talent in City-Wide Open Studios 2001.

City-Wide Open Studios, advertised as “an exhibition the size of a city,” invites artists from Greater New Haven to showcase their work to the public over two weekends. Last weekend, 171 artists opened their studios around the Elm City, and this coming weekend, 179 additional artists will put up their work in the Downtown Alternative Spaces. These spaces vary from the former Yale Co-op to the abandoned lot on Chapel Street. About 20 Yale faculty and students participated in the event.

“Every year the work gets better and better,” said Marianne Bernstein, founder of the exhibit and the artistic director of the supervising organization Artspace. Four years ago, she emulated the West Coast models of City-Wide, adopting them to New Haven in hopes of revitalizing what she felt was a dying art scene. Since its beginning as a consortium of 75 artists, the program has grown to become the largest of its kind in New England and the third largest in the nation. The opening drew an estimated 1,000 people, and a similar number dropped in to the studios throughout the weekend.

The opening proved that New Haven is not just a rest stop between Boston and New York, but a hub of creative energy that entices new people each year with its low cost of living and sense of community. The artists run the gamut of the discipline, from traditional paintings, photography and sculptures to multimedia and interactive art.

“I like the idea of a group exhibit,” said Joseph Cifferelli, a participant who owns a studio close to East Rock. He called City-Wide a “bottom-up” experience, rather than a “top-down” one like visiting a New York gallery.

The bottom-up art viewing, in this case, means recognition of artists for their work’s sake rather than their name. City-Wide presents works of anyone who would call himself an artist. Works of world-famous artists, like Jessica Stockholder, professor at the Art School, are displayed next to those of freelance and moonlighting artists.

The artwork that emerges ranges from decorative pieces perfect for the dining room to abstract art with hidden meanings, and to others that scream a more obvious message. For example, patriotism and Sept. 11 took shape in last weekend’s exhibit once as a simple painting of an American flag, once as a red, blue and white quilt sculpture of girls holding a nationalistic message, and once as a wrecked entanglement of copper, steel and wood.

The viewers pore over the selection of art at the main exhibition in the Chamberlain building, choose the pieces they find engaging, and work out which galleries they should stop by to see more of their favorite artists’ work.

“Just as interesting as the exhibit is seeing the studio space and being able to interact with the artists,” said Tyler Coburn ’05, who biked to two exhibits on Saturday. “It adds a whole new perspective to art.”

The visits are an integral part of the City-Wide experience. Bernstein started the program because “New Haven’s resource is space, and artists enliven empty space.”

Walking through the abandoned factories where artists rent their studios, one could feel the play between space and art. The white, uneven bricks on the wall, the used tubes of oil paint, and the light playing through the broken windows all concocted an intoxicating fusion.

Genuine conversations with the artists further warmed the atmosphere. Anyone who thinks art is pretentious and anyone who assumes New Haven is hostile to Yale will be pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of City-Wide. Artists welcomed comments and reflections. They painted, with words, portraits of themselves as artists — where they have been and where they plan to go. Those interested in collaborating on future projects exchanged name cards.

“Artists need each other for feedback and support, and we nurture that,” said Helen Kauder, another founder of City-Wide and the executive director of Artspace.

“We wanted something where the people can interact with artists, and artists can interact with other artists,” Bernstein said, recounting how she hit on the idea of City-Wide when she saw how artists, homeless people and students would come together at a gallery she used to run with her friends.

Bernstein’s vision is echoed in the Open Studios program. City-Wide is not only an exhibit the size of the city, but an experience that can bring together all different parts of the small city.

City-Wide Open Studios

77 Crown St. (main exhibit)

October 19 – November 1

12-5 pm Free