A daughter is about to interview her mother for the purposes of this article. As they sit across from one another on a bench-like ledge, they form a mirror image. Petite figures with almost matching heights, they share the same serene yet inquisitive stare, showcasing a face that seems genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.
The setting is a gallery, a white open space with walls that double as canvases. Next to the place of conversation stands a behemoth, Deploy Black by Meredith Nicke. The sculpture’s centerpiece is a concrete block that epitomizes brutalism. Carved into its top you see a very orderly and symmetrical labyrinth, and broken glass is splattered all over one corner of the maze. On the opposite corner, some sort of golden rack contraption stands, most suitable for the entrance of a dance club. Framing one side of the rock slab, like a slash, a long and black rectangular lighting apparatus rests on the wall. Our photographer tries to capture the perplexing piece in one shot.
“No, this is a very abstract, challenging piece,” gallery director Helen Kauder remarks. “It needs to be viewed as an entire installation.”
Helen is the mother. As she interviews Helen, her daughter Rachel, a Silliman sophomore, cannot look more eager to learn more. They both love the arts, and truly believe in them. Given this introspective temperament, it is neither contrived nor surprising that they have applied artistic conduits as an approach to help others. Rachel, for her part, wrote a book before college, an anthology of first period narratives, in order to promote understanding on the trials of womanhood (she also donated the royalties from the book to charity).
On the other side, her mother’s job as executive director of Artspace strives to narrow the gap between the New Haven’s arts community and the rest of the city. One of the flagship events embodying these efforts — City-Wide Open Studios, a three-weekend festival celebrating local visual arts talent — just kicked-off for its 13th iteration last week. The entire initiative has been a sort of Helen’s pet project since she started lifting Artspace from the rubble back in 1998, but just as with all devotions, there comes a time when everyone must question whether there are greener fields to sow.
A matriarch returns
A part of one of the 284 works of art being exhibited at this year’s City-Wide Open Studios, the broken glass in Deploy Black, however minimal, seems to be the most attractive feature of the piece. Again, Helen insists that the piece must be considered as a whole.
This savvy art connoisseurship and authority has helped make Artspace perhaps the most prominent and formal venue in New Haven for professional visual artists and performers to connect with the greater arts community and the public at large. As a gallery, it consists of 5000 square feet of performance space and exhibition for contemporary art on the corner of Orange and Crown St. Helen currently functions as the figure at the helm of making sure Artspace serves its purpose of benefiting and educating the citizens of the Elm City.
But such was not the case before this past July. After 10 years of steering the course of Artspace, in 2007 Helen took a post as deputy director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. It was an amazing opportunity she said she could not let go, but she does admit to taking into account the financial struggles that permeated Artspace at the time.
Now, after three years in Aldrich, she has returned to her nest.
“I don’t think while I was here during the first 10 years that I had truly appreciated how important it is to have a space so close to downtown and easily accessible to students and artists,” she said in a separate interview with WEEKEND. “There are these inherent advantages in Artspace I had not latched on to before.”
Her return marks a revitalized desire to reach out to more groups at Yale and other city organizations. Most prominent as of now, however, is the reinstatement of City-Wide Open Studios as a three-week event, as well as the revival of the Alternative Space, the found space that artists alter with provisional installations.
Overall, she currently has a quest to shift the focus of forthcoming Artspace events. The past 3 years in her absence, she said, have focused less on art and more on social gatherings, whereas now she will try to create special events that bring in different audience and highlight the intellectual underpinnings of each exhibition. This, she affirms, will guarantee more cohesive and impactful art showings. When asked about any possible detractors, she said it was “too early to say” — after all, she has only been back for three months.
Helen is still trying to remain ambitious while tightening the belt of Artspace, pacing the planning of their events in accordance with their budget, which consists of grants and sponsorships. The volunteer base has been increased to lower costs and renting out studio space within the gallery for up-and-coming artists. In spite of financial setbacks or possible obstacles to her new mission, she is cautiously optimistic about her renewed future inside of Artspace.
With the intention of easing this mother-daughter exchange, WEEKEND drafted a discussion guide with talking points that it thought could foster interesting dialogue. And unsurprisingly, Rachel barely touched on any of the suggestions given. Jumping off from our outline, she created her own questions, the kind only she could ask. She took command of the interview and capitalized on the finest of assets: a daughter knows her mother best.
Q. What would you say makes up an ideal arts community? What aspects of such a community does New Haven have and not have?
A. I think a model arts community has a lot of support for artists, in a variety of forms. Some of that support can be space, in the case of visual artists, or in the case of musicians, maybe rehearsal space or performance venues. Another kind of support comes from a welcoming community in which artists can feel there is a time and a place for them to meet each other. I think those are two things that are very important, and at the same time, are available to artists in New Haven. I’d say a third aspect that should be available for an artist is patronage. That may be in the form of art collectors for the visual arts, or underwriters for composers, dancers and choreographers, and maybe New Haven isn’t that strong in that area.
Q. What other arts programs in New Haven do you feel are exciting, run smoothly and add more to Artspace? What (besides Artspace) do you think constitutes the New Haven arts community?
A. I think the presence of some major libraries and museums is extremely important to New Haven and its arts community. Those are resources that artists use and access. But also, there are a lot of artists who have realized they can be artists and still find a way to have a paying job at the same time. That might be as an art installer at the Yale Art Gallery, or a photographer at the Beinecke Library, or even an organizer of exhibitions in these kinds of places.
Q. Do you see any other cities as having the same kind of struggles or similar opportunities as New Haven?
A. Well, I am thinking of a city like Detroit since I’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on there, because it’s a city with a lot of deficits, very few jobs and a lot foreclosures. It’s a shrinking city, and New Haven has also been a shrinking city at one point. But I’m seeing that those same challenges [in Detroit] become the opportunities for artists. So for example, artists are buying foreclosed homes, and others are buying them and turning them into green spaces for urban farming. There was a big building that used to be a train station — huge and empty — that had not been used for years and the town did not know what to do with it. And what have they come up with? An arts use for artists. So it’s intriguing to see that some other towns are facing some of the same obstacles.
Q. I want to ask you this, but I don’t think really think there’s an answer to it. Is there a “New Haven aesthetic”? I would say there is sort of a Paris aesthetics and a New York aesthetic, but New Haven is pretty diverse and young in the arts world.
A. I think if you would’ve asked that question 15 years ago, focused more on painters and the Yale School of Art, then one might have talked about the descendants of Josef Albers. I think there was a cohort of people, some of whom are know teaching, who fit this mold. But at this point, with art practice being so varied, and people in painting interested in sculpture, and sculptors interested in drawing, I think right now there’s less of a singular style.
Q. What would you tell a Yale student who wants to go into art, professionally?
A. Well, I think a place like Artspace is actually an amazing place to get hands-on experience that is often hard to come by in a very hierarchical place like a museum, or even a very standoffish place like a commercial gallery that you might find in Chelsea. In contrast, Artspace would welcome you with open arms, and if you come in with a passion for a particular kind of project or initiative, we try to find ways to support that; we try to be as helpful as we can be.
Q. So this is more of a personal question. In a general way, what kind of undergraduate major do you think lends itself well to the arts? Or, another way to put it, I know you were an Economics major as an undergrad. How has that served you? If you could go back and do it again, would you major in something else?
A. I’m not sure that majors matter that much. I think what’s really important is the ability to write really well and cogently. I think that’s the most important thing. We actually had someone work for us who double-majored in Biology and Art at Yale and ended up being our graphic designer and communications director for a number of years.
Q. I was going to ask you what would you say to Yale students who would like to go into finance, but I actually don’t want to ask that. (laughs) So instead I’m going to ask a clichéd question — what is art?
Q. And how does a director of an art gallery evaluate if something is art or simply trash?
A. Such a good question, it could be debated for hours. I guess for me, something that is art, I find that it moves me in some way. When I encounter it, I know it. And I’m somehow lifted and provoked, and transported. There is some sort of electric charge that I feel and …
A. …and then it is art.