Regan Avery gently prodded the wire connected to hundreds of tiny slips of paper bearing the names of her family members, who have lived in Groton, Conn. for centuries. Once repaired, the slips of paper, spilling from the book that had bound them, would pulse and vibrate, seeming almost to breathe atop a white table in Artspace, the contemporary art gallery on Orange Street.
While Avery worked, 100 works of book art from the collection of Alan Chasanoff ’61, a New York art patron, lay inside the Yale University Art Gallery, part of an exhibit called Odd Volumes.
Odd Volumes and the Artspace show, Connecticut (un) Bound, which close after this weekend, are the fruit of the first formal collaboration between the YUAG and New Haven’s leading contemporary art gallery, now in its 30th year. Avery’s and seven other pieces were selected through an open call by the University and Artspace to create book art in response to pieces from the Chasanoff collection. The resulting work is diverse, spanning a range of mediums and messages, but united by their focus on Connecticut.
The pieces in Connecticut (un) Bound are complemented by several works from the Chasanoff collection, which includes about 350 works, only a portion of which could displayed in the YUAG. Since the exhibits opened in early November, events such as artist-led walking tours have encouraged art viewers to walk the five blocks between Artspace and the YUAG and examine the book art on display in both spaces.
To Martha Lewis ART ’93, educational curator at Artspace and the organizer of Connecticut (un) Bound, the collaboration represents the possibilities of combining Yale’s resources and reach with the local focus and contemporary outlook of organizations such as Artspace. But if the success of the two shows demonstrates the power of such collaborations, it also raises questions about whether Yale and New Haven are missing other opportunities to engage through art.
“There’s definitely a gap,” Lewis said of the separation of Yale’s and New Haven’s art communities. “And we try to bridge it.”
At Yale, too, administrators in the YUAG, Office of New Haven and State Affairs, and the School of Music work to keep doors open, invite community members in and form partnerships with local schools. And on a less tangible level, Yale’s resources and institutions help create the art-oriented urban spirit that has led New Haven to bill itself as Connecticut’s cultural capital.
Some, however, wonder whether the relationship ought to be more mutual, less about Yale extending resources to New Haven and more about people permeating boundaries to view and create art together. Richard Rose, master printer at Jonathan Edwards College and an instructor who has taught college and freshman seminars, created one of the pieces in Connecticut (un) Bound, an accordion-fold book titled To the Letter: Reading New Haven. Rose said he thinks there is likely room for Yale’s artists and art lovers to venture further into the New Haven art community.
“I know that Yale is a draw for artists that are living and working in New Haven, but I’m not sure about the other part of that equation,” Rose said.
A Blossoming Partnership
This past October, the YUAG launched its latest initiative to increase access to its collection and resources: a free afterschool program for New Haven teens. About once a week, any high school student in the district can come to the gallery for 90 minutes of viewing and discussing art. Then they get time and supplies to work on pieces of their own.
According to Jessica Sack, the associate curator of public education at the YUAG, 12 students regularly attended the program in the fall and about 12 more attended at least once. For most attendees, the trip to the YUAG for the after-school program was likely not their first: The museum, along with the School of Music, has a particularly strong presence in New Haven Public Schools.
For roughly 30 years running, students in the district have participated in a series of visits to the gallery throughout their third-grade year. Since she arrived at Yale in 2004, Sack has also spearheaded an arts education program for NHPS teachers. Once a month, the Teacher Leadership Program invites teachers in any subject to visit the gallery and brainstorm strategies for incorporating the art into their classroom instruction. The goal, Sack said, is to help teachers find ways to show students thematic connections between, for example, a piece of literature and a painting produced around the same time.
In large part, Sack credits the district’s arts-friendly culture with the success of such programs.
“I lived in New York before I came here, and I have to say that I’m so impressed and excited that this city is so supportive of the arts,” Sack said. “At the district level, they support teachers coming with their students to museums, and that’s not the case everywhere.”
Ellen Maust, supervisor for the performing and visual arts at NHPS, said that, in her 35 years as an educator, she has never seen the district pursue cuts to arts programming. What she has seen change over the past decade is the strength of Yale’s commitment to engaging with the public schools.
“There was a time when Yale was Yale and New Haven Public Schools were New Haven Public Schools, and now I really see Yale as a highly supportive, strategic partner,” Maust said.
Maust said one of the game changers for the Yale-NHPS relationship was the establishment of the Music in Schools Initiative, which partners School of Music students with district music teachers and hosts Saturday rehearsals for city-wide honor ensembles. The Initiative was fully endowed by the Yale College class of 1957 at their 50th reunion.
Michael Yaffe, associate dean of the School of Music, said there are about 45 School of Music students working in 18 schools this year, in addition to Ruben Rodriguez, the lead teacher who oversees the initiative. The program costs about $150,000 annually to run, Yaffe said, all of which is covered by the endowment.
Maust said the Music in Schools Initiative allows the district to offer talented students opportunities comparable to those readily available to students whose parents can pay for private lessons without batting an eye.
“Those opportunities for extra classes or activities or art camp, of an intensive, rigorous nature are very costly,” Maust said. “So we’ve been able to really bridge the achievement gap in music because we’ve been able to offer these opportunities.”
The Music in Schools Initiative is strong and comprehensive. But despite the international renown of Yale’s School of Art, there is no visual arts counterpart to Music in Schools. In fact, across Yale College, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the 12 professional schools, only the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and the School of Art lack official “community outreach” programs, according to the Office of New Haven & State Affairs website.
“It would be wonderful to be able to do [what Music in Schools does] with visual art,” Maust said.
A Missing Link?
Every Saturday, Carmen Canales drives her son, a freshman at Hillhouse High School, to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Canales’s son is part of the Saturday Class for Gifted High School Students, a high-level visual arts class taught by professors from institutions in the five-college consortium. The rigorous, selective program costs just $85 for the academic year. It is intended for local students, but Canales, a financial analyst at the School of Medicine, could find nothing comparable in New Haven, so her son applied to the Amherst program. Even after considering the cost of gas for the nearly three-hour round trip, Canales said, the program at Amherst is more affordable and higher quality than extracurricular art programming in the Elm City.
“New Haven is supposed to be the arts seat for Connecticut, and we have Creative Arts Workshop [a nonprofit arts education center on Audobon Street],” Canales said. “We have a lot of things, but financially I can’t make that happen. I’d rather drive him up to Amherst because he’s taking a college course at a college.”
A few weeks ago, after an instructor at the Amherst program expressed surprise that Yale offered no art classes for high school students, Canales emailed School of Art Associate Dean Sam Messer, asking if there exists a program she had not discovered. He could not think of one and emailed Susan Cahan, dean of the arts, to double check, he said.
Cahan suggested that Canales look into the Creative Arts Workshop, which offers scholarships. Cahan also mentioned the Educational Center for the Arts, which offers classes and also has a program that allows about 100 NHPS students to spend half the school day at their academic high school and half at the ECA campus on Audobon Street, focusing on visual art, music, dance or creative writing. Canales’s son, however, already participates in that program.
Canales said she was disappointed to find out Yale lacks a major visual arts outreach initiative.
“You’re not funding the future,” Canales said. “Here’re our students that would love to have access, homegrown artists. We have plenty of great artists but to have that exposure [to working artists at Yale], I feel like it’s a missing link.”
Messer said he wished the School of Art had the resources to offer a program comparable to the Music in Schools Initiative. The School of Art has not had a major donor eager to offer the resources to fund such a program, Messer said.
“Very esteemed alumni have come through the School of Art, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate into them being wealthy enough to make large contributions,” Messer said. “I would love nothing more than for you to find us a large donor that could fund us a program where we could go into the schools.”
Besides lack of financial resources, another barrier to the School of Art launching a community engagement program may be art students’ crunched schedules. MFA candidates are typically on campus for only two or three years, and the pressure to produce can be intense. Andrew Hawkes ART ’16 was part of the student team that curated Odd Volumes, and he stayed in New Haven during the summer of 2014 to work on the project. Even so, he said he does not feel particularly connected to the New Haven art community.
“[The MFA] is a two year program and it’s very accelerated and you’re very invested in your work and your practice,” Hawkes said. “It’s tough to know that in a few years you have to have results. There’s not much time to stay in New Haven and learn a bunch about New Haven outside of Yale. Even as an art student there’s not much time to learn about things going at Yale. It’s just fast.”
Alternatives to “Outreach”
Not everyone agrees that more Yale-led community service projects are the answer to linking the art worlds of Yale and New Haven. During her sophomore year, Emily Hays ’16 started a group called Blue Haven dedicated to the idea that arts partnerships — not “outreach” or volunteer programs — could allow Yale students and New Haven residents to interact with each other in meaningful ways.
Blue Haven has linked Yale’s spoken word groups to similar groups at local high schools and invited a local youth open mic night called Kingdom Café to the Af-Am House so Yalies could watch and perform as well. The goal, Hays said, is for such partnerships to become self-sustaining and permanent, gradually dissolving the town-gown divide through the power of creative collaboration.
“I think just going out and volunteering in New Haven is a problematic relationship that creates stereotypes about New Haven and Yale, that New Haven doesn’t have anything to offer,” Hays said. “But there’s a really interesting arts culture. That’s why I think arts events are a really interesting way to start getting into the richness of what New Haven has.”
Hays works at the YUAG and visited Artspace to see the Connecticut (un) Bound opening last year. She thinks the companion shows highlight exciting possibilities for future cooperative efforts.
Lewis said she had heard from numerous gallery visitors that they had been at the YUAG, or planned to go. The opening event was well attended, as were various walking tours held during the show’s run. The final event of the collaborative effort is a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon. From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., artists represented in Odd Volumes and Connecticut (un) Bound will discuss book art and their work. Then, attendees will head to Artspace, where from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other artists featured in Connecticut (un) Bound will participate in a panel discussion, followed by a closing reception.
Lewis said she hopes the collaborative exhibition is a turning point in the way Yale and New Haven relate to one another with regard to the arts.
Artspace’s upcoming exhibit, Vertical Reach: Political Protest and the Militant Aesthetic Now, focuses on contemporary protest art in Eastern Europe and was organized in collaboration with an academic conference at Yale. Vertical Reach opens on Feb. 20, and the conference Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism, held at the Whitney Humanities Center from April 17 to 19, will include visits to the gallery.
Vertical Reach, Lewis said, will allow academics to interact with the living manifestations of the cultural trends they are studying. It is a partnership that allows the University to take advantage of New Haven’s cultural richness, and Artspace to expand its audience and reach.
“The cultural life of New Haven depends a lot on Yale, and it’s sometimes hard to get people over here, even when it seems like we have things they would be interested in,” Lewis said.
At the same time, as a Yale graduate herself, she recognizes the persistent pull of the campus and its happenings, arts and otherwise.
“The University was my universe,” she said. “It was very easy to get caught up in the bubble.”