Some call it a sidewalk; others call it art. Walk down Chapel Street, turn right on Orange, look down, and you’ll find the New Haven Path of Stars: a two-block line of eight-pointed stars nestled in the Ninth Square. Every 15 feet, a star announces the name of a past local “celebrity.” If you read closely, you’ll learn that Joseph McAlphone was a janitor for the New Haven Gas Company and that Lee Chong owned the first Chinese restaurant in New Haven. Not exactly the type of people who would mix well at a cocktail party with those honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When the Path of Stars first appeared in 1995, the Ninth Square was still transforming from an area of decaying and vacant buildings into the strip of gourmet restaurants and newly-renovated apartments that it is today. Sheila de Bretteville, the artist behind the Path, wanted to pay her respects to the working-class heroes by setting their names down in concrete. The New Haven Path of Stars is just one of 476 registered pieces of public art in New Haven (Alexander Lieberman’s “On High,” the collosal red sculpture next to City Hall, is another). Some of it is owned by Yale, some by the state of Connecticut, and other pieces are city property (271, to be exact). Some of the artworks were installed more than a hundred years ago, some of them just last year. Public art can be found embedded in sidewalks, attached to walls, tucked away in gardens, low down, high up, fenced in, or out in the open.
But what exactly constitutes public art? Does it have to be publicly owned and funded, or does it just have to exist in a public space, ready to be trampled on, gazed at, or ignored completely? Danielle Ward-Griffin wants to know. A graduate student studying music history and a President’s Public Service Fellow dedicated to community service, she spent last summer working in the New Haven Office of Cultural Affairs assembling a catalogue of public art. “Take the dinosaur in front of the Peabody Museum,” she says. “Since it’s owned by Yale, can it be considered public art?” Turns out the answer is yes: though it’s privately owned, it’s on display to everyone.
When Ward-Griffin came to the office, she thought that she’d be researching jazz for the New Haven Jazz Festival. But when the festival was called off, she found herself teamed up with Laura Macaluso, the office’s public art assistant. Together, they went around the city to document what public art there is and what has been destroyed. They reported back to Barbara Lamb, the director of New Haven’s Percent for Art program. Under the Percent for Art legislation, 1% of the total budget of construction costs of building a new public space or renovating an existing one must be set aside to fund a new piece of art for that building.In addition to cataloguing the city’s holdings, Ward-Griffin and Macaluso also wanted to assess the condition of the artworks. New Haven’s storied past has given rise to a lot of public art that now needs to be assessed and maintained, Macaluso says. According to her, the state of New Haven’s public art is an indicator of the city’s health.
The origin of public art in the city can be traced to the monument-building frenzy that infected the area right after the Civil War: memorials cropped up in parks and squares throughout the city to commemorate the fallen, the costs funded by wealthy private donors. The first of these memorials was the Soldier and Sailors Monument on top of East Rock, which dates from 1886. The Bennett Fountain on the New Haven Green, completed in 1907, is another early work that has survived its first century. In the thirties, the Federal Art Project, the largest government-sponsored public art program in American history, came to New Haven, and the Works Progress Administration hired locals to paint murals throughout the Elm City.
At the Nathan Hale Middle School near the Tweed-New Haven Airport, there’s a WPA mural dating from 1938 hanging above the biography and nonfiction shelves of the school library. Five panels tell the life story of Nathan Hale, Yale graduate and Connecticut’s native son. You see young Hale caring for an ox on the family farm while his father looks on sternly. You see Hale in college, wearing knee breeches and chatting with a friend on Old Campus. You see Hale reading from a scroll in debate class, an older version of Hale taking off his breech-coat to engage in a wrestling match, and finally, Soldier Hale signing official British documents a few days before he’s hanged for treason.
But when Ward-Griffin and Macaluso drove around trying to find other WPA murals, they found that many had vanished entirely. “Each of the murals was supposed to be a community effort to revitalize the neighborhood, but if nobody maintains it and no one knows it’s public art, then it’s going to disappear,” Ward-Griffin says. It’s been the fate of most of the city’s younger historical murals as well. From 1973-1982, the CETA Program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), started by President Nixon, had an initiative to provide unemployed youth with summer jobs while sprucing up the city. Local artists worked with young crews to create 15 psychedelic murals that advocated peace, love, and togetherness, but almost all of them have been painted over, marred by graffiti, or gone missing with the years. Under the “destroyed” category, you’ll find “Love Through the Seasons,” formerly located in the waiting room of the Community Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue, as well as “Roots and Earth, Wind and Fire” which once stood in the Dixwell Community House. The ladies at the Office of Cultural Affairs are trying to get more funding to preserve the historical murals that have come through the decades intact, but restoring a single one can cost upwards of $40,000. There are no set funds earmarked for preservation. Fortunately, good news has arrived in the form of Mayor John DeStefano’s massive school reconstruction program that’s currently underway, which includes a budget for the conservation and refurbishing of any surviving WPA mural found in a public school.
In the eighties, the city saw a rejuvenation of public art under the Percent for Art Program. New Haven was the first city in Connecticut to adopt this measure in 1982. In the program’s first decade, New Haven had an entire office dedicated to promoting public art through its Percent for Art program and other initiatives. But with the citywide budget cutbacks of the nineties, the office was slashed to just one person, and the Arts Council of New Haven, an independent organization, took over the program. When Barbara Lamb came into the Office of Cultural Affairs seven years ago, she took back Percent for Art and made it a full-fledged public program again. Two years ago, she hired another part-time public art coordinator to lighten her load.
The Office of Cultural Affairs makes a conscious effort to hire local artists for their projects. They have a slide registry of the work of hundreds of artists, most from the Connecticut and Tri-State area. Their rule of thumb is to hire only artists who live within 150 miles of New Haven, so those in Maine or Baltimore are out of luck. Once the artist has been a chosen, a jury of people associated with the building (parents, school board members, local residents) vote on which artist’s idea they like the best. In recent years, the large numbers of school renovations under DeStefano’s program have meant that funds for new art projects have appeared on a regular schedule. Recently, the Office of Cultural Affairs also took on an ambitious project to make an inventory of every single piece of public art that exists, or once existed, in the greater New Haven area, which is where Ward-Griffin and Macaluso came in.
In addition to documenting the status of the WPA and CETA murals, Ward-Griffin and Macaluso took it upon themselves to trace the Percent for Art program to its beginnings. They discovered that the first piece of art commissioned under the Percent for Art program has survived.Eileen Doktorski, a local sculptor who had a studio on James Street, was hired in 1989 to share her vision with the public.
In East Shore Park, just up the road from the Nathan Hale mural and hugging the New Haven Harbor, you can still find Doktorski’s sculpture, “To Kiss the Earth,” which was meant, according to the artist, to “blend the spirit of nature with that of space-age technology.” The result is a sculpture that looks like four flower petals draped over a pair of rigid horizontal chopsticks. The flower petals are painted a red that fades into orange that fades into yellow before settling on green; the chopsticks are left alone in their original steel shade. 19 years later, the paint is chipping off. The grass beneath the sculpture is sparse. Lumps of dirt have gathered around the base.
Doktorski’s sculpture wasn’t the only one found in such bad condition. Ward-Griffin and Macaluso discovered that if the first Percent for Art pieces weren’t slowly disintegrating, they had long ago been stolen. The Seaman Sculpture, another Percent for Art project implemented in 1993, was originally located in Quinnipiac River Park. The sculpture was meant to celebrate the history of the oyster harvesters of Fair Haven, where families once lived in oyster houses with basement storerooms: they shucked shellfish by the bucketload all day and sold right from their homes. Rossi’s sculpture featured a whimsical sea captain wearing a rain hat and a slicker, smoking a pipe in his left hand and holding an oyster in his right. He had frog hands with nodules at the end of every finger. Unfortunately, only the granite base remains today: the small scale of the bronze sculpture made it an easy target for thieves, and the Seaman vanished soon after it was installed.
Thieves, decay, graffiti. All of these pester New Haven’s public art, but sometimes the problem is just bad publicity. The highlight of the summer came when Ward-Griffin and Macaluso helped paint a mural with the middle schoolers of the East Rock Magnet School. Macaluso raves about conceiving a design with the kids (they settled on a globe with a ladder coming out of it meant to symbolize “upward mobility”), finding the perfect canvas (a giant sheet of fiberglass), and covering up an unsightly concrete wall with the finished mural. “Now when you drive by on I-91 and see the school, it’s like ‘Boom!’ There’s big colorful art painted by the students,” she says. But Ward-Griffin says that when the mural was unveiled, the mayor wasn’t exactly there to toast the occasion with champagne. Instead, they found themselves hosting a party where the only guests who showed up were the artists themselves: “It was just us celebrating with the kids, eating some crackers,” Ward-Griffin says. “A lot of times, people never hear of the latest mural being put up in their neighborhood. I’d say there’s a lot of art around, but people don’t know where it is.” She adds that there used to be a walking tour of New Haven’s sculptural highlights, but the program ran out of funding. Now there are no pamphlets to guide art-loving visitors around the city, so even self-guided tours aren’t possible. To remedy the problem, Macaluso hopes to assemble an online exhibit of New Haven’s public art holdings. She cites Yale’s online museum catalogues as her inspiration, but her project is still just an idea.
Seen or unseen, digitized or not, once art is installed, maintenance becomes an issue. If it’s not painted over or removed entirely, public art is often simply neglected after the initial novelty wears off. Ward-Griffin points to a problem she calls the “temporary/permanent divide”: when a piece of art is initially meant to be on-site for a few months but no one bothers to get rid of it, it can decompose quickly in the absence of a caretaker. When that happens, it becomes more of an eyesore than a jewel of the cityscape. “Conservation is a huge issue, but it takes grants to conserve things. Right now, we just don’t have enough money to keep things in good shape,” Ward-Griffin says wearily. It’s a good thing metal wears down slowly.
The conservation issue also plagued the Visions and Voices initiative, a rival program of Percent for Art that began in 2002. Visions and Voices teamed Connecticut-based artists with local neighborhoods for six months. The residents of the neighborhood collectively proposed a project, and the artists implemented their ideas. The Visions and Voices program was designed to let the public design and make their own art while the artist helped with the execution. Libraries and schools were filled with the offspring of these marriages. In Westville, residents painted individual tiles with handprints, hearts, and smiley faces and set these tiles on a wall, which they finished building in the rain. Another team installed a series of birdhouses, and yet another built their own totem pole. Unfortunately, like the majority of public art conceived in New Haven, many of these works have fallen into disrepair. Ward-Griffin cites a sculpture of a mask composed of lots of little masks called “Faces of Eternity,” once located outside the Stetson Library on Dixwell Avenue. Soon after it was installed, someone dented it with a ball. Then it somehow got bug-infested, so the librarians had to take it down last year. “And it was only made five years ago! It should’ve lasted a lot longer,” says Ward-Griffin, shaking her head. The Visions and Voices program was discontinued in 2003.
When Visions and Voices disappeared, other small organizations emerged to promote public art in New Haven. One of these is Site Projects, a local nonprofit that brings in international artists to conceive of site-specific public art projects for New Haven. They planted a row of canoes designed by Slovenian artist Matej Vogrincic in the Farmington Canal just last year (the canoes were temporary, so early morning joggers won’t be running around them anymore). Artspace, a gallery that features the work of local up-and-coming artists, has its own public art initiative, evidenced by the multi-scale xylophone they installed by the Chapel Street bus stop, which was here until last August. But Percent for Art is still the only viable program in New Haven focused on making permanent art for the city at large. It’s alive despite the difficulties and the lack of steady funding. While they have no budget of their own (Barbara Lamb says that she keeps the program running on “smoke and mirrors”), whenever a building is proposed or renovated, a new project is guaranteed. In the end, it’s often not the adults behind the project, but rather the kids in the audience who benefit the most.
At the Clarence Rogers School next to West Rock Park, a long, cheerful mural lines the main hallway. Entitled “Animals Show Us the Alphabet,” it’s meant to teach boys and girls their letters as they walk to lunch. An ape munching on an apple sits on an A. An elephant wearing earmuffs perches on an E, and a fish eats french fries on top of an F. Further down the hall, there’s a llama reading a letter on an L, a koala flying a kite by a K, penguins playing ping-pong over a P. Finally, there’s a zebra coming out of a zipper the shape of a Z. The letters are painted in bright primary colors. It’s no Picasso, but it looks nice and sharp against the white brick walls.
So although New Haven’s public art has been alternately neglected, vandalized, and under-publicized, murals like the one at the Clarence Rogers School show that the Percent for Art program will persist. Lamb is confident that the city will continue to push the art agenda and will try to increase public awareness in the future. “People pass art every day and don’t know that it’s there,” Lamb laments. “Or they might look at something and wonder: ‘Why bother to spend taxpayer’s money on that?’ But there are some people who’ll look at a sculpture and say: ‘Look at the shadows it casts on the pathway! Isn’t that fascinating!’ I love how those people react.”
With the annual Jazz Festival discontinued, the Office of Cultural Affairs has begun to focus more on installing and maintaining public art that can be enjoyed throughout the year, but they need more support from local residents to keep the art scene hopping in New Haven. “Other small cities have much more active art programs,” Ward-Griffin says. Lamb agrees. She cites Providence’s WaterFire, a parade where torch-holding boatmen in monk robes sail along the Providence River to an awed crowd every Saturday, as the kind of performance-based public art that New Haven should aspire to: something that “sucks you in and wakes you up.” Ward-Griffin and Macaluso are hopeful as well. “There’s definitely a lot of people committed to the arts in New Haven on a grassroots level,” Ward-Griffin says. The underlying, if at times deeply hidden, public support already shows in the enthusiastic reviews local residents have given for the most recent Percent for Art projects.
Winifred Rembert’s “We Shall Overcome / We March for Education,” located in the lobby of the Lincoln Bassett School off of Dixwell Ave, is a mural painted on leather that’s been tooled, stained, and dyed, and sealed with Super Sheen. In the picture, a group of African-American students are marching for education in front of the Capital Building in DC. “Give us better books!” “I want to learn!” “Give me a chance!” they’ve written with bold black letters on white signs. Beside the mural, there’s a poem which Rembert himself has written through the eyes of a young scholar: “…I want a chance / Want to be somebody / Somebody who knows something. / Somebody smart, A teacher, a doctor, a nurse / I can do it, I’m going somewhere / Yale, not jail.” Total cost of the project? $20,920.00, about one semester’s tuition at an Ivy League college. But fortunately, the upkeep of Rembert’s mural will cost nothing. According to the artist, all you need to do to maintain a leather mural is wipe it gently with a damp cloth.