It’s 2:30, the end of the school day at Christopher Columbus Family Academy, but no students are waiting or chatting outside. Columbus is officially the newest school in the New Haven public school system, undergoing a $35.8 million renovation just this year. Still, the school’s gleaming façade cannot hide its location in one of the city’s most perilous neighborhoods, and most students stay safely indoors after school. I ring the doorbell and try to look non-threatening for the cameras that monitor incoming visitors, and I hear the click of the opening lock as I am permitted into the building.
Inside Principal Abie Benitez’s office lies a seemingly different world. Parents shoot questions to the secretary in rapid-fire Spanish (the students are predominantly Latino). Two fifth-graders rummage through the lost and found, wondering aloud if they left a sweatshirt in the gym or the cafeteria. On the side table next to me, even the fliers are loud, their fluorescent pinks and yellows screaming at me to enroll my child in free after-school tutoring sessions in reading and math. But despite the frenzied surroundings, there’s a different kind of emptiness. The bulletin boards are devoid of student work. A faded pale-orange poster announces that music classes are canceled, although it’s unclear how long it has hung there. Fliers advertising Arté, a community non-profit promoting Hispanic art, remain buried beneath sheaves of tutoring handouts. In fact, there’s no visible evidence of art anywhere in the office — strange for a school that has just been given $37,000 for it.
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Established in 1981, New Haven’s Percent for Art program is simple: it mandates that one percent of the city’s budget for each municipal construction project must be put toward the creation of a public artwork for that location. However, because the city funds only a fraction of most renovation costs, with the rest coming from state and federal funding, the true cost of each artwork is usually just one tenth of one percent of the cost of a given renovation. Recently, schools have been the overwhelming beneficiaries of this program due to New Haven’s Citywide School Construction Program, in which half of the city’s public schools have been renovated since 1995. Because these schools represent the biggest construction initiatives, 18 of Percent for Art’s 20 most recently commissioned works have been for schools. Columbus is the 27th school to be renovated, and with the “one percent” of its $35.8 million budget — a figure the city rounded to $37,000 — the school boasts the newest completed Percent for Art commission: a bronze statue by Providence-based artist José Buscaglia.
I first felt the presence of public art in New Haven three years ago as I was walking to a local restaurant and decided to take a shortcut through a seemingly deserted alleyway. There, among the weeds and pieces of abandoned chain link, I was confronted with an 18-foot wall of rusted metal tubes in various sizes, a sight only out of place among the other stray scrap metal in this setting due to its monumental size. This, a nearby plaque informed me, was “Pamplona” by sculptor Dewitt Godfrey. Puzzled, I Googled the name a week later and discovered that “Pamplona” had been removed from its previous site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after it was deemed an “ugly, rusty eyesore” by commenting onlookers. It then journeyed to New Haven, to remain, for several months, sandwiched between a crumbling brick wall and a Dunkin’ Donuts. After this introduction to this startling art world, I wanted to know more. What exactly was public art? And perhaps more importantly — who was paying for this stuff?
Percent for Art is the biggest commissioner of public art in the city; over the past five years, the Office of Cultural Affairs has spent nearly half a million dollars on artwork for New Haven’s schools alone. But where does the money go? Meanwhile, since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed in 2002, public schools nationwide have cut funding for their arts programs and lack the means to hire full-time arts teachers. As these programs disappear, does Percent for Art make a difference? Does installing public artwork really fill the void?
Columbus School’s artwork was commissioned in 2006, when the architectural plan for the school’s renovation had been nearly finalized. Barbara Lamb, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, explained the lengthy process that, in the case of Columbus, took more than two years to complete. For each commission, Lamb’s office forms a committee that meets three times: once to confer about potential locations and specific mediums for the artwork in the building, once to discuss the 25 possible artists chosen from a file of contributors to the program and select three finalists, and once to choose an overall winner based on the proposals submitted by the three finalists.
When Lamb asked me about the purpose of our interview, I explained that I was interested in how Percent for Art affects students in New Haven and contributes to the creative life of the school. She paused for a moment, then pointed out a part of the process that might interest me: once the finalists are chosen, the public has the opportunity to evaluate their proposals.
“Usually we put it on display in the school so that students and parents have an opportunity to comment on it,” Lamb said. “And we often put it on display in the library so that people at City Hall and the public have an opportunity to comment on it. After it’s been on display for anywhere from two to four weeks, we call the jury back together.”
The program’s latest project, a work of art for the Roberto Clemente School, is scheduled to be unveiled at the school’s opening in 2009. Lamb claimed that the Office of Cultural Affairs would display the proposals it received at the end of October 2008 at the New Haven Public Library.
“How many people come to see the proposals?” I asked.
“Well,” Lamb said, “I don’t think there’s a lot.”
“Do you have any examples of feedback you received from people in the community?”
“Not really, because we’re not out there, so we don’t really hear it directly,” she replied.
I was eager to see the proposals, although there was no set date for their public display at the time I first interviewed Lamb. When I contacted her again at the end of October, she explained that the proposals would be received in “three to four weeks,” and then put on display in the Wilson branch of the library. Seven weeks later, I tried again, and was informed that the proposals would be in that Friday, December 5, and that the person in charge of the display would get back to me. At the time of this writing, I have yet to hear from him.
Although Percent for Art claims that it supplies “monetary support, recognition, and pays tribute to Connecticut’s living artists by honoring and preserving their work on display,” when I asked Lamb about those artists, she was apologetic.
“We used to just have Connecticut artists in our database, and then we had a consultant…it was actually a Yale student,” Lamb said, eagerly drawing a parallel between this consultant’s background and my own — although the student, Marisa Angel Brown, studied at in the School of Architecture and was several years my senior. “She revised our guidelines, and she looked at what other states and other cities do, and suggested that we were selling ourselves short by not including artists from New York and the surrounding states.”
Now the city has opened up the competition to artists from around the Northeast. Lamb, however, insists that local artists are still well represented.
“What we try to do is offer the jury a good mix of artists, so there’s a good number of artists from New Haven as well as artists from outside of New Haven, so they know what they’re selecting.”
Although these local artists may be represented in the prospective pool, lately they have never made it to winning actual commissions. Of the 10 most recent works to be assigned, only one has been given to an artist from Connecticut. He is not from the New Haven area.
In the last minutes of the interview, I voiced to Lamb that I was interested in the idea of getting the students more involved in the creation of the program’s artwork. Was that ever something that the jury considered?
Lamb looked pensive. “There are some artists who, as part of their proposal, will put forth ways and ideas for how the children can be involved in the construction of the art. There are actually a number of artists who have proposed that kind of thing,” she said. “And to be honest, I don’t know if there’s any who have actually won the commission as a result of this kind of thing.”
She paused, turning to consider the spreadsheet of past commissions on her office computer. “I don’t see one jumping out at me. Oh,” she said, turning back to me. “There’s one artist who — she’s been nominated several times, but she hasn’t actually won a commission — she does murals in which she actually engages the kids, so the kids actually help to paint the mural and to design the mural. There’ve been others who’ve worked in glass tile who showed how the kids could actually help to cut the glass and create this mosaic.”
“Yeah, I’ve done that before.”
“Yeah!” Lamb exclaimed, enthusiastic, then quickly regained her composure. “But … she didn’t win.” In the public art game, it’s winning the commission that matters. A good idea that fails to receive funding will never see the light of day.
Principal Abie Benitez cried on October 24, the day Buscaglia’s statue was unveiled and dedicated. The sculpture, a bronze cast of a Spanish sailor on one of Columbus’s ships, represents a great deal for the school’s diverse ethnic community, according to Benitez, whose powerful voice and direct stare belie her diminutive stature.
“It makes it for all of us, kind of a common story. That it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, but doing the right thing, or doing your job, or doing what you’re assigned to do.”
When I questioned Benitez about the classes at Columbus, it became clear that what her students were “assigned to do” in class had little to do with art, despite the school’s expansive — and expensive — art room, newly added to the school during its renovation. Benitez said that Buscaglia’s sculpture has been incorporated into the curriculum. “They need to look at the artwork, and they need to find features in the artwork. Draw it. Write about it. Talk about it,” she said. Yet this leaves precious little time for the creation of their own projects; students have art for half an hour once or twice a week, in accordance with the district’s standard curriculum for elementary- and middle-schoolers. The music program is even less developed.
“We have a part-time teacher,” Benitez said. “But it’s still really …” she trailed off, her eyes looking toward the open door. “It’s still in baby steps there.”
Percent for Art insists that its goal is not only to beautify, but also to educate. According to its website, it “has exposed city children to local artists while adding creative touches to schools and municipal buildings, adding a fun and imaginative aesthetic to these learning environments.” Benitez agreed. “One of the things that was very important for us was that [Buscaglia] understood that we’re trying to teach children the process of learning.”
“How exactly is this learning accomplished?” I inquired.
Benitez informed me that the artist “integrated that into his process in the sense of, um, there’s a plaque that explains the art form and it also explains how the school envisions children learning.” That afternoon, I searched around the school grounds, but never found the plaque.
A 45-minute walk away from Columbus, on the Yale University campus, 14 fourth graders write furiously around a large wooden table. They’ve been bused in by dedicated parents from New Haven’s Beecher School, on the northeastern outskirts of the city. Divided into pairs, they’re all composing short dramatic scenes, to be performed at the end of this 90-minute class.
Chrystal and Kristin, pink pencils moving in sync, pause to discuss stage directions intently from behind their magenta-painted nails. One of the teachers approaches a student on another team.
“How many characters do you guys have?”
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” the student replies, launching a discussion about how to make the drama tighter.
With six Yale mentors and 14 Beecher students, there is practically a one to two teacher-student ratio in the small seminar room in Linsley-Chittenden Hall, where Splatter, an arts magazine for New Haven students, convenes for its monthly workshop. Some of the scenes written this afternoon will end up in the magazine, a collection of students’ writing and artwork created over the course of the year. But to get this kind of attention, either students must trek to the university, which often requires concerted parental effort, or devoted teachers must attract the organization to their own schools.
Splatter, an organization run through Yale’s Dwight Hall Center for Public Service, was founded in 1989. It has thrived in recent years, as public school teachers have been forced to look outside their schools for arts opportunities for their students. In response to the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools nationwide have been narrowing their curricula to focus on reading and math, the subjects whose scores determine whether or not a school is meeting its goals. In 2006, a Center on Education Policy survey determined that 71 percent of the 15,000 school districts in the country restricted the number of hours devoted to other subjects, including history and science; the arts were the hardest hit, often being completely eliminated. And in schools that have the furthest to go to meet the testing benchmarks set by the law, including many in the New Haven Unified School District, these cutbacks are the most dramatic. Splatter seeks to make up for these shortcomings.
“The teachers get really excited about it. I haven’t come across a teacher who is like, ‘No,’” said Andrew Saviano ’11, the co-coordinator of Splatter. “The limiting agent here, as far as how many workshops we can do, isn’t the number of schools, but the number of volunteers. Every school we try wants us to come to their school and do this for them.” Splatter holds workshops in schools around the city every week, as well as longer workshops on the weekends on the Yale campus for students who want a more involved experience.
Andrew Ferguson, who teaches these fourth-graders at Beecher, shepherds his interested students to Splatter every month. Employed by Teach for America, Ferguson recognizes the need for a creative outlet in his students’ lives — and the reality that they are not exposed to it during the school day.
“They don’t have anything like this,” he said. “Obviously, as a teacher you try to incorporate it into the day, but since No Child Left Behind, the school has cut every separate arts program. The only reason they still have P.E. is because of the obesity crisis. There are no arts teachers. So you try to get it in other ways, like this. That’s why this is so great.”
When I mentioned Percent for Art to Ferguson, he said he had never heard of it, even though Beecher School was renovated in 2007 and has artwork commissioned through the program to the tune of $32,000. Yet, as Ferguson noted, Beecher has no full-time arts teachers. Instead, a smattering of students comes to Splatter on Saturdays.
“Public school education in America is defective in a lot of ways, but public school education in New Haven is not at the top of the barrel, let’s put it that way,” Saviano said. “We can’t undo schooling that should have been different. So we’re trying to give them a little taste of … kind of the other side of the coin.”
At the end of the workshop, many of the teams are eager to present their scenes, their hands waving in the air at Saviano. He chooses David and Briana, who relate the epic tale of Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark getting caught in a time warp and winding up in modern-day New York City. Their momentum is interrupted when Briana breaks character.
“We need someone to be a buffalo.”
And even among the giggling, self-conscious preteens, a willing artiste emerges from the group.
After speaking with Benitez, I explained sheepishly that I had yet to see the sailor sculpture. She eagerly pointed me toward the door where I entered the school. Although I invited her to join me, she politely excused herself. “I hope I have more time to sit out there and look at it,” she said, before hurrying back to her office for the afternoon.
I walked in the direction of her gesture, exiting the school and pausing on the deserted sidewalk in front. After walking back and forth across the length of the building, I had yet to spot the statue — or, for that matter, another student outside.
After 15 minutes of searching, I crossed the street to begin the long walk to my own school, when I looked back for one last glance. From my spot in front of Porky’s Bail Bonds, I could make it out. Perched on top of the roof, there was the bust of a sailor, his arm held aloft, reaching for his promised land. The piece, as Benitez had so insistently described, was inspiring. But, placed atop the school’s extended overhang, it was impossible for children at the school to learn from it, or even see it — unless they were visiting their neighborhood bail bondsman. As I turned away, I could still picture the sailor staring towards shore — and I wondered if I was one of the first people to stare back.