W hen Project Storefronts began a couple of years ago, it was as a comment on the economy. The first phase of the project—which lets local artists reconceive desolate downtown storefronts for their own quasi-commercial creative needs—was a slew of art-enhanced shops on Orange Street near Crown. Then came a Church Street location noted for its “Free Store” component. Since Project Storefronts is reliant on the magnanimity of its buildings’ owners, who lend the spaces rent-free in exchange for having them cleaned and lively, the occupancy of any given space is short-lived by design.
Now, as an ongoing model of urban arts opportunities and neighborhood beautification, Project Storefronts is here to stay. The program has been lauded by arts organizations near and far, from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven to the NEA; last June it received one of the first-ever Creative Economy Awards from the New England Foundation for the Arts.
PS has been at its current location, 756 Chapel Street (near State Street) for six months now. Margaret Bodell, the co-founder and driving force behind Project Storefronts, hopes this latest arrangement will continue indefinitely. She recalls, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch that building.’ I said, ‘No, that’s where I’m going. I saw the potential, and I saw it as three galleries.’”
Bodell’s own beginnings as an art curator are
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intermingled with that neighborhood. Her first gallery space, Art in Heaven, existed on Crown Street in the Ninth Square during the late 1980s. At the time, the city had cleared a lot of stores out of the neighborhood in hopes of creating a walking mall. Little was left besides a couple of bars and the punk rock club The Grotto, whose denizens became Art In Heaven’s steadiest supporters. Many of those musicians bought their guitars and drums at 756 Chapel, home of the Goldie Libro music store for nearly four decades until it closed in 2003. Just as they are now, Ninth Square artists were crossing over from music to art and vice versa.
It’s a charmed space, further validated by New Haven historian Colin Caplan’s findings that 756 Chapel also once housed an architect, a scene painter and two necessary elements of any bohemian culture: a saloon and a tobacco shop. “Historically,” Bodell says, “this is an arts hub.”
It’s fitting, then, that “756 Studio,” as it’s now called, is known for a community-building overlapping inspirational art installation called The Ripple Effect, through which visual artists create
site-specific installations based on the contours and textures of the building, then “tag” performance artists and other visual artists to take the exploration even further. The Ripple Effect officially closes this month, with proceeds from a March 18 “clearance sale” benefiting New Haven homeless shelters.
At 756 Chapel, the first floor belongs to Intercambio, a new intercultural, multi-disciplinary community arts project founded by Albert Agbayani, who moved to New Haven last year from Los Angeles to work at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and quickly established himself in the local arts and dance scene.
Last Friday night Intercambio was helping Jason Bischoff-Wurstle (director of Photo Archives at the New Haven Museum & Historical Society) set up a conceptual “Middle School Dance Party.” Basketball court-style markings were created with masking tape, and balloons and streamers festooned the walls.
Bodell didn’t arrive at 756 Chapel until after 6 p.m. that night, following a day in Hartford, where she’s serving as Durational Projects Manager for the statewide public-art-mural City Canvases Project. Bodell also still co-runs a gallery in New York, where she frequently shows Connecticut-based artists. “But my main job,” she says, “is Storefronts.”
“It’s a…” Bodell pauses, searching as ever for a new form of expression. “A… gathering incubator? I’m tired of saying it’s a cultural hub.”
“It’s always different and wonderful here. It feels like home.”
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.