A New Haven for Art

His feet tread lightly on the red carpet in the center of the dimly lit room. If you look closely, you can see that the pocket of his sweater has been replaced by a hole, and streaks of multicolored paint run down the left side of his body. He clears his throat, raises his hands in the air, and in one great breath exclaims, “I love museums.”

This is artist Titus Kaphar, ART ’06, on stage delivering a TED Talk titled “Can Art Amend History?” in April of this year. Behind him is a 17th century Frans Hals painting which he covers in white paint, obscuring the faces of all but the young Black boy in the background. This workshop he presents is reflective of his own artistic pursuits, through which he aims to interact with history by manipulating mediums and mixing contemporary and Renaissance forms. His painting, “Yet Another Fight For Remembrance,” created in 2014 in response to the shooting of Michael Brown, depicts two Black men with their hands in the air, mouths and bodies obscured by the same white paint he brandished on stage at TED2017. Kaphar’s work is political.

From Yale University Art Gallery

His work outside of the studio also serves as a testament to his view of art as a mobilizing tool. Kaphar and his business partner Jonathan Brand, ART ’07, work together at an organization called the PostMasters Project, an initiative to foster a creative community within New Haven, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018 if approvals by the City Plan Commission proceed as anticipated. The project’s stated mission lies on four pillars: mentorship, workshop, space, and community. Kaphar, who splits his time between New Haven and New York City, chose to start the project here after being engaged in the local arts community during his time at Yale.

Next fall, the PostMasters Project will call the 40,000 sq. ft. of 169 Henry Street home. The long abandoned building used to be the Macalaster Bicknell factory, and is only a few blocks away from Hillhouse High School. Kaphar and Brand hope that the spatial proximity will facilitate connections between young up-and-coming artists from the high school and working professionals with established careers.

The project will be made up of ten fellows: four focused on curating, and six artists who will each be assigned two high school students. The fellows, or “PostMasters,” will be given access to studio space, a stipend, training, and mentorship. The project’s goal, as specified on their website, of the creative “revitalization” of Dixwell will work on several levels: the fellows and the high school students will collaborate to create exhibitions, ideally serving not only as an arts gallery, but a communal space. By this program alone, arts education in New Haven Public Schools will see a welcome boost.

Since June 2010, New Haven public schools have abided by the Common Core created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, along with 43 other states across the country. The program’s only specifications are its expectations of students’ English and Mathematics capabilities upon completion of each year. It does not require an arts curriculum.

Given the lack of focus on the arts within New Haven public schools, the PostMasters Project could have significant impact on the educational experience of young people who live in Dixwell.

Daniel Fitzmaurice, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, is excited about the possibilities for the PostMasters project. His organization, a nonprofit focused on fostering creative community within the city, shares similar goals with Kaphar through “social and human needs services, exhibiting artwork from children, youth, and adults who have never publicly displayed their work.” They hold local exhibitions which range from visual to performance arts.

Fitzmaurice anticipates that the PostMasters project will fit perfectly into the current arts landscape of the city: “Titus’s project is incredible. . .it’s a very collaborative and community oriented effort,” he lauded. “This is a community that is very under-resourced in a number of different ways,” he explained, expressing his certainty that Kaphar and his colleagues have the community at the forefront of their concerns. “I know the leaders of this project have made a lot of intentional relationships in the community, which is important to make the PostMasters project not just a cash investment in rehabbing a space, but also an intentional investment in making a ripple effect in that neighborhood.”

With regards to the project’s impact on the larger community, specifically the younger population, Fitzmaurice stressed the importance of its commitment to engaging students from Hillhouse High School, though he states that “There is a strong presence for the arts in the New Haven public schools today,” referring specifically to the ACES Educational Center for the Arts and Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School also known as the ‘Co-Op High School.’

Evelyn Rossette-Ryan, Chief of Marketing and Outreach for the ACES Educational Center, notes that the school follows “a unique model because all of the faculty members are working, teaching artists. It’s very effective,” she adds, “and it’s been very effective for a long time. . .I think it gives students a lot of real world experience, there’s a great diversity on the campus because students are from school districts across the state, and they bring different strengths, and interests, and passions.”

Both the Co-Op High School and ACES Educational Center for the Arts are magnet schools that offer a less traditional curriculum. The ACES center is more selective than the Co-Op High School in that it requires an audition to gain entry, whereas the Co-Op’s admissions process is determined by lottery. Nevertheless, both of these methods of selecting students from the greater community are indicative of the value that local residents place on the arts.

The necessity for an organization like PostMasters is clear: outside of these exclusive specialized schools, there is a lack of access to facilities focused on creative expression. Fitzmaurice acknowledges that this might fill a gap in the Arts Council’s programs; the Council’s operations, he explained, include programs that “do a lot of work in the public school system, however we don’t specially administer any services.”

Fitzmaurice added, “Our vision is that the arts is the heart of our community, which could not be more true than [when high school students] are exploring a lot of different ways of existing in this world and need a lot of creative outlets.” Kaphar feels the same way about his own work, admitting in an interview with TIME Magazine that his art feels as cathartic as it does communicative.

He notes in his TED Talk, “Painting is a visual language,” and goes on to recount his realization in college that his calling was to highlight the ways in which the past is always in conversation with the present.

Kaphar’s work, which has appeared in the the Museum of Modern Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the New Britain Museum of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, focuses on the mutability of history — that the importance of who recounts a legacy influences the ways in which we perceive the ‘objectivity’ of fact.

The PostMasters project is well placed to maintain local culture within Dixwell while negating a common narrative: the artist as a harbinger of the displacement of marginalized people. It is hard to foreshadow its visible impact on Dixwell, however the $5.8 million dollar private donation fund from which it was born, as well as the cafe area and black box theater that will be incorporated in the space are reasonable grounds for worry.

The partners of the PostMasters Project as listed on their website include both Dwight Hall and the Yale University Art Gallery. Although its affiliation with the University is unclear, all of the organization’s donations are routed through Dwight Hall, the school’s volunteer center for public service and social justice. Kaphar’s commitment to amending history is clear.

Fitzmaurice is hopeful: “it is a common understanding across work around the country that an entire neighborhood will likely change for the better as a result of hosting this exciting arts center. . . It’s our view that the arts has no boundary line as far as how it impacts people, and where it impacts people.”