In 1924, the Little Theater on Lincoln Street raised its first curtain. The smallness of the venue was part of its mission. Little theaters like it had been popping up in cities across the country as alternatives to the out-of-town, profit-driven theater companies that played to big audiences. The intimate venues were built for experimentation, social-reform dramas, and works by local artists. It was a true community theater.
Later converted to a movie house, the Little Theater building narrowly escaped the wrecking ball to become part of the Educational Center for the Arts, a high school arts program located in the Audubon Arts District, an enclave of arts education spaces that are a vital part of the city's reputation as place of opportunities for artists of all ages. The newly-renovated performance space is a living testament to New Haven's long commitment to community-building power of the arts.
- Seventy-one percent of Greater New Haven residents use arts and culture resources, 5% higher than the state average1.
- The arts and culture sector generates $653 million in economic activity in Connectiuct2.
The arts bring life to streets, neighborhoods, and in some cases, an entire city. In Greater New Haven, they have played an important role in rejuvenating repopulated areas and creating places where people want to live, work, and visit.
This role of the arts has acquired the name, creative placemaking. It was popularized in a 2010 report commissioned by Mayors' Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which states:
"In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired3."
Both the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education now encourage arts strategies with revised funding guidelines. In Connecticut, the Dept. of Economic and Community Development has made placemaking a cornerstone of its arts grant making.
In New Haven and Beyond
In the 1960s, long before placemaking became a buzzword, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven forged a long-term partnership with the city to remake an industrial area anchored by a foundry into the mixed-use Audubon Arts District. Art education and performance spaces rose up next to retail shops, office space, and condominiums. Twenty years later, the effort was capped by the construction of the Community Foundation building, which would be the first home of Artspace as well as the council. The district is now recognized as a model redevelopment project.
Another placemaking effort was launched on a city-wide scale in the late 1990s. A group of visual artists associated with Artspace recognized that there was a rapidly growing community of artists who needed more venues to showcase their work. At the same time, the city had an abundance of underused space in beautiful but neglected buildings. Put together, the two ideas gave birth to Citywide Open Studios (CWOS).
During three weekends in October, artists open their studios across to city to display their art and show off their processes, and a vacant building is converted into an alternative studio space, bringing foot traffic and hope to a distressed part of the city. The festival now features as many as 500 artist studios, brings thousands of visitors to New Haven, and has contributed to the city's artist-friendly reputation.
"There is this sense that we have to promote our assets so that we will create pride in a place," said Helen Kauder, co-founder of CWOS and executive director of Artspace, a studio for emerging artists. "The arts play a catalytic role."
Project Storefronts is another recent example of creative placemaking. A collaboration of the state, city, private landlords, and artists, vacant store windows are converted into exhibit spaces for visual artists.
Several project storefronts are clustered near the Ninth Square neighborhood, an area that in the last decade has come to life with arts generated activity. Home to Artspace, other smaller galleries, restaurants, and a start-up business scene, the neighborhood even has a signature monthly event – First-Fridays. The gathering creates a street fair of music, art, and food while galleries and stores have open houses.
The International Festival of Arts and Ideas is also placemaking on a city-wide scale. For nearly two decades, the festival has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors downtown.
In recent years, the festival has brought pop-up events and arts education to the Dixwell and Hill neighborhoods. In 2013, the festival generated $34.3 million for the local economy, according to an Economic Impact Study conducted by Quinnipiac University3.
A Broken Umbrella Theater Company engages in creative placemaking throughout the city. The mobile theater troupe takes over a vacant space for each performance and stages an original site-specific work based in New Haven history.
In Branford's Stony Creek, the nonprofit Legacy Theater is reviving a venue in the community theater tradition. Part of a burgeoning district along the shoreline, the theater has had various incarnations in its 100 year history, including a silent movie house, repertory theater, girdle factory, and a puppet theater and workshop, which closed in 2008. The theater's new owners are committed to a place that engages neighbors and the town, while bringing visitors to the Shoreline.
Building community is part of the theater's legacy. Old playbills from when the theater was home to the Parish Players include the names of many Stony Creek families, said Managing Director Greg Nobile.
"Everybody was involved in putting on the shows. It was the epitome of what a community theater was," Nobile said. "In that same vein we are interested in engaging the community. We are smack dab in the middle. We have to involve the community because they are our neighbors."
Ball and Socket Arts is working with the state and the city to redevelop a circa 1850 button factory into an arts and entertainment complex with performance spaces, studios, galleries, shops, and restaurants. The project aims to take advantage of the industrial site to bring in welders, printmaking equipment, and kilns, and will be a place for classes as well as performances.
"We want to be a little village that will hopefully flow into the neighborhood," said co-founder Jeff Guimond. "Someone could come on bike, look at art, get some food and settle into the place."
What the Community Foundation is Doing
The Community Foundation has a long history of supporting organizations and activities that create a sense of place centered on the arts. It provided more than $500,000 to the Arts Council of Greater New Haven during the Audubon Arts District development and also partnered with the council to develop The Community Foundation building. The Community Foundation's first grants to the arts council in 1966 helped pay for its first full-time staff.
In 2008, The Community Foundation provided $75,000 to Area Cooperative Educational Services for the renovation of The Little Theater.
Since providing seed money to help launch the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas in 1996, The Community Foundation and its donors have invested more than $3.5 million to an event that activates the New Haven Green and both traditional and nontraditional venues throughout the city.
The Community Foundation is a supporter of Arte . Promoting art, art education, and economic opportunities for Latinos, Arte is a vital contributor to a vibrant community in Fair Haven and is a collaborator with Citywide Open Studios and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
The Community Foundation is also a longtime supporter of Artspace, providing funding to help launch and sustain Citywide Open Studios.
1. Abraham, Mark and Mary Buchanan. (2016). New Haven, CT: DataHaven.
2. Arts & Economic Prosperity IV in the State of Connecticut, Americans for the Arts, Washington, DC 2012.
© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
Updated June 2017