Daniel Zhao

As Mayor Justin Elicker nears the 100-day mark of his tenure, his administration has begun to implement the vision laid out in the transition team report. For the arts, culture and library focus, this vision includes abolishing library late fees, prioritizing cultural inclusivity and expanding direct investment in the arts, among other initiatives.

April 12 serves as the due date for a slew of policies spanning the 10 areas of focus outlined in a transition report compiled over the course of two months prior to Elicker’s inauguration. The 52-page document details recommendations that emerged from conversations with hundreds of city residents in the form of two town halls — collectively boasting nearly 500 attendees, 112 email suggestions, 353 survey responses and 68 meetings with city officials and community leaders.

Recommendations come in three categories: first 100 days, two years and long term. For the arts, this means making definitive policy changes and engaging in a larger conversation about inclusivity and equity in city programming. These goals vary in focus and scope, with some that are methodological changes and department reviews, and others that rely heavily on outside funding or an increased municipal budget. All, however, address what the transition team identified as the central objective of artistic and cultural programming: equity.

“New Haven teems with cultural vibrancy,” the transition report reads. “The arts can play a crucial role in creating economic health, building community, and fostering equity and inclusion. However, the City lacks a coherent vision for its arts and culture policy.”

While the city has strong arts institutions, the report continues, there exists a great disparity in resources for those led by and catering to white audiences and those by and for people of color. As such, the transition team recommended an “equity framework” and “comprehensive and inclusive cultural-planning process.”

THE LIBRARY

Central to this vision, the transition team wrote in its report, is the New Haven Free Public Library, which spans five locations throughout the Elm City and offers books, technology access, life skills lessons and practical workshops. For the past two years, those services have formed part of a larger vision: a five-year strategic framework established in 2018.

In an interview with the News, City Librarian John Jessen said that the framework was the result of extensive community engagement and empathy training on the part of library employees. Rather than asking residents what they wanted specifically from the library, Jessen said that the survey asked residents what they need in general to achieve their goals — library staff then determined how the library can serve as a resource to that effect. The resulting framework outlines seven strategic initiatives that cover topics such as training residents on practical skills, welcoming newcomers and facilitating personal enrichment.

The library’s most recent budget report boasts promising statistics from FY 2018: 40,000 children benefited from over 2,000 library programs, the library’s 74 databases are visited more than 300,000 times each year and circulation is up 7 percent since 2013, coming in at 400,000 items circulated annually. These achievements and others earned the NHFPL the National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2019.

But the transition report warns that “the library’s success is more fragile than it looks and should not be taken for granted.” In Elicker’s first 100 days, the transition team has one clear goal for the library: abolish late fees. The library has experimented with its late fee policy in the past, offering amnesty days — on which library users can return borrowed books after their due dates without incurring late fees — and a summer suspension of children’s late fees two years ago.

Children were entirely exempt from late fees until nine years ago, at which time the library instituted a fine structure “to help raise revenue and [ensure] materials were returned in a timely fashion,” Jessen said. He added that library staff members are still analyzing the data from the summer experiment and “considering other incentives to get books returned … in a timely way.”

Programs like amnesty days and fee suspension periods, Jessen said, serve as “release valves” that help the situation but do not constitute long term solutions. The library, he continued, is researching the possibility of eliminating late fees altogether. But he said that it is “too early to say” whether elimination is possible by April 12. Moreover, because late fees are a source of current library revenue — specifically “used to buy replacement materials and to provide programs across the system for adults and children” — any changes would have to be presented to the library board, Jessen said.

Still, national data concerning late fee abolition shows promise and Jessen said that he is “very optimistic that we’re going to get to a good place on this.”

The transition report noted that Chicago recently became the largest library system to implement such a policy, in step with the American Library Association’s recently passed resolution calling on all public library systems to do the same.

In the long term, the transition report calls on the city to expand library hours and increase staff salaries to levels that are competitive with neighboring towns. These goals align with Jessen’s understanding of the major issues in the library system. According to the FY 2019 budget, New Haven’s library salary expenditures per capita have hovered around $5 below the medians for similarly sized towns and the state since 2013. A 2017 survey of library users revealed that limited library hours were the “#1 barrier to using the library more,” with nearly 45 percent of respondents calling for an increase.

But initiatives like these require funding, and New Haven’s budget remains tight. The library has received between 0.77 and 0.80 percent of the city’s general fund in the past several years, according to the FY 2019 budget. According to the transition report, New Haven has a relatively low level of per capita library funding: $32.43, as compared to $45.73 in similar cities in Connecticut and the statewide average of $47.35.

The transition report calls for library funding to increase to one percent of the general budget in the long term — amount to roughly $1.5 million dollars, “to be implemented in phases as the City’s fiscal status improves.” This would put New Haven’s spending levels on par with the medians for similarly sized towns and the state.

DEPARTMENT OF ARTS, CULTURE AND TOURISM

The City’s Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism — which supports neighborhood activities, oversees public art installation and plans community events — welcomed a new face this week as it began rolling out the transition team’s vision for cultural programming in New Haven.

Elicker tapped arts administrator and cultural equity leader Adriane Jefferson as the city’s Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs last month. Jefferson most recently served as Connecticut’s Arts Program Manager in the Department of Economic and Community Development/Office of the Arts. In her first week in City Hall, she told the News, she focused on how to align the department’s activities with the overall framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion presented in the transition report.

“When you’re looking at diversity and equity and inclusion, you really need to be looking at: how are we increasing access to programs that are existing, or if they’re not existing … how do we make resources available,” Jefferson said.

As Jefferson and her team begin building their plan, she said, she plans to utilize regional resources such as the Connecticut Office of the Arts’ Relevance, Equity, Access, Diversity, Inclusion (READI) principles, the New England Foundation for the Arts’ vision of “all people having fair access to the tools and resources they need to realize creative and community endeavors” and the City of New York’s five-year arts equity plan.

Within this guiding framework, Jefferson has outlined actionable steps for the Elm City under the umbrella of increasing awareness and communication. A lack of awareness can form a significant barrier to participation in artistic and cultural life, she said, particularly when residents feel that certain venues are not relevant to or welcoming towards them, or when programming occurs in a language different from their own.

In order to increase access, Jefferson plans to create a centralized database of available artistic venues in New Haven and establish partnerships with local institutions — potentially with the help of city subsidies — in order to ensure that all residents can take part in the city’s rich cultural offerings. This effort, she continued, hinges on marketing and promotion: ”driving awareness of what is already there and breaking that barrier to access.”

This plan mirrors the transition team’s — the report calls on the city to “identify spaces such as schools, libraries, and community centers that can be made available at low or no cost and create a streamlined mechanism for allowing artists easy access.”

But some of the report’s other goals, as is the case with some long-term plans for the library, are contingent on increased funding. For instance, the report calls on the city to double direct investment into equitable arts programming via a strengthened Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grant Program — administered by the mayor — and “external resources,” given the city’s budget constraints.

The report additionally advises that the city “consider mitigating … prohibitive costs [involved in hosting arts events] via external funding sources that enable waived fees, sliding scales, and insurance coverage, or an arts and culture funding pool to cover expenses.”

Jefferson told the News that she cannot comment on budgetary matters but that the city has an important role to play in cultural life independent of financial resources. Most importantly, she said, the city should act as a conduit between artists and institutions — institutions that include not only city venues, but also potential employers. Arts and cultural institutions are looking for young, emerging talent, she said, and the city can play a networking role to connect aspiring artists with these workforce actors.

For Jefferson, this effort would constitute an extension of prior work. As the state’s Arts Program Manager, she developed the Arts Workforce Initiative — a paid employment program that has placed over 100 people between the ages of 18 and 40 with arts jobs across Connecticut. By bringing this idea to the Elm City, she said, New Haven can encourage local talent to stay local rather than leaving for Boston or New York.

“That costs nothing. That’s just people power … there’s so much power in connectivity,” she said.

The transition report’s other recommendations for the arts include making Yale’s resources more accessible, increasing artists’ role in municipal management of the city’s built environment, particularly via public art installation, and promoting artistic and cultural events on the Green.

The transition report was released on Jan. 7.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

  • Katja Hoes

    The White American Women University Students of Yale University