W hat does an arts council do? It counsels on the arts. What’d you expect?
In different cities, that can mean different things. Some arts councils become the main presenters and producers of arts events in their communities. Others act as clearing houses for information about what disparate arts groups are doing. Some offer services like the use of a conference room or a fax machine.
The Arts Council of Greater New Haven does all those things, to varying degrees. But it’s in a special place, providing support for a city that is accepted as the cultural capital of Connecticut and which has a number of established institutions, from Yale to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to Artspace doing a lot of heavy arts lifting.
As Executive Director Cynthia Clair expresses it, when she meets with other arts councils, “everybody looks at New Haven with envy.”
Clair regularly travels to Hartford to give testimony about or consult on major state-funded arts initiatives, then comes home to prepare local nonprofits for what’s going down. This year, one of the issues is the big change in how state grants are applied for and doled out.
The Arts Council also publishes and distributes ten issues a year of The Arts Paper, which offers feature articles, extensive locals arts listings and updates on job openings in area arts organizations. The listings database is also now part of an Arts Council-sponsored app, ANDI, available from the iTunes store and soon to be found in an Android version. “Every six months we revisit whether we should still do it in print” or move entirely online, Clair says. But she likes the idea of people randomly picking up copies of The Arts Paper at places like Clark’s Dairy, and getting interested in local arts that way.
Whatever the variables, the goal remains clear, even when presented in wonky grant writers’ language: “Support for the creative sector of the region.” Or, as Clair (who’s bilingual in businesspeak and casual conversation) translates: “Where do the arts fit in New Haven?” For the Arts Council, that can mean partnering with non-arts organizations such as Connecticut Mental Health, the Department of Transportation (for the recent “Exact Change” series in which artists performed on city buses) or the various architects and developers who took part in the council’s decades-long “Percent for Art” initiative, allowing one percent of a new building’s construction budget to be spent on a public art piece.
“We’re inclusive,” Clair says, and drives home the point by pointing to the art currently hanging on the Arts Council office walls—a makeshift gallery originally known as The Small Space but now dubbed the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery. All the works are landscapes, but the three artists chosen are profoundly different in their backgrounds and approaches. One is an architect who recently retired, one has an autistic condition, and another is homeless. “We don’t label that,” Clair says. “They’re all artists who paint landscapes.” The council also runs gallery spaces at First Niagara Bank on Church Street and at Higher One in Science Park.
The council is able to do as much as it does because major annual events (such as the Arts Awards and the “Somewhat Off the Wall” fundraisers) are overseen by staff members whose job titles don’t begin to suggest the scope of what they really do.
Bobbi Griffith, for instance, is the ACGNH’s Director of Membership and Advertising, yet she’s run the Audubon Arts on the Edge festival for the past 12 years. The 2012 event occurs this Saturday, June 2, rain or shine, filling Audubon Street between Whitney and Orange with performances, storytelling, information booths, a stiltwalker and such great participatory traditions as painting on a wall and chalking on the sidewalk.
The festival was originally meant to be a local-arts gateway into the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, but with A&I starting on the later side this year (June 16-30) and Arts on the Edge more dependent on the public schools still being in session, the Edge has become freestanding, not really an edge of anything.
Griffith has added a whole new dimension to this year’s festival—the Westville-based Kid-ical Mass, a children’s version of the popular Critical Mass bike rides. Children are invited to bring their bikes to the festival and take part in a 2 p.m. ride from Audubon Street to New Haven Green and back.
Events such as that (not to mention performers such as the Pantochino Children’s Theater, the Ginga Brasiliera Dance Company, the New Haven Swing Dance Society, Music Haven, Neighborhood Music School and several student ensembles from the Educational Center for the Arts) keep Arts on the Edge jumping. But even with nearly three dozen scheduled events during the five-hour festival, bringing so many artists together in one place also assures fresh surprises. “One year,” Griffith recalls, “there was a lull in the entertainment on the plaza, for just a few minutes, and these Yale students who were there as volunteers just started performing a cappella.”
The Arts Council is unique in how it shares the credit. It appreciates how many artists are in the area, and enjoys finding ways to bring them together. “We promote the arts in general,” says Cynthia Clair. “We don’t promote the Arts Council.”
Arts Council of Greater New Haven
70 Audubon St., New Haven (map)
(203) 772-2788 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Special Note: Arts on the Edge festival this weekend.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.