Artspace Closes Its Orange Street Doors; Open Studios Will Continue As Artist-Led Effort

Lucy Gellman | June 16th, 2023

Artspace Closes Its Orange Street Doors; Open Studios Will Continue As Artist-Led Effort

Culture & Community  |  Erector Square  |  Arts & Culture  |  Artspace New Haven  |  Ninth Square  |  Westville


Photo Courtesy of the New Haven Independent. 

A creative anchor of New Haven's Ninth Square neighborhood has closed its physical doors in the hopes of regaining its financial footing. In the space it leaves, a growing coalition of New Haven artists have banded together to keep its signature program, City-Wide Open Studios, running this October.

Artspace New Haven, followed shortly by Erector Square-based artist Eric March, made those announcements Friday morning, in the latest developments for an institution that has been in transition for the last six months. In a press release from Allagash Consulting Friday morning, Artspace Board President Kara Straun pointed to a time of growing financial uncertainty for the organization. Hours later, March announced that artists would be independently bringing back Erector Square and Westville Open Studios this fall. More on that below.

It comes as a massive shift for Artspace, which has been in its 5,000 square foot, 50 Orange St. space since 2002, and in early 2020 signed a 10-year lease with Beacon Properties LLC. 

“Out of an abundance of both caution and necessity, the board has decided to downsize the organization and re-examine Artspace head-to-toe,” Straun wrote. “We understand that this may be upsetting to many. However, the board and staff have carefully considered our circumstances and the significance of this decision, and believe these are prudent steps necessary to safeguard this vital organization and its bright future.”

In a follow-up phone call Friday afternoon, Straun said that the decision grew out of "the convergence of many, many things," including a realization that Artspace was not as financially stable as the board had once thought, and as it has been at multiple points throughout its history.

In January of this year, Executive Director Lisa Dent announced that she would be leaving the organization for a job at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). In March, Interim Director Karen Jenkins began to "assess the condition of the organization and its obligations," Straun said in a statement on the organization's website.

In particular, Jenkins realized that Artspace had "a number of significant financial obligations to a number of entities," Straun said by phone. These included artists and vendors, as well as staff and operating costs. After long deliberations, both Jenkins and members of the board decided that that the cost of Artspace's brick and mortar home was untenable.  

Straun declined to comment on Artspace's current operating budget and the conditions of its lease with Beacon Properties, including how much the organization was paying for rent. She did praise Jenkins, who "spearheaded a lot of the conversations with Beacon" as she learned more about the budget.

"We're kind of at a reckoning moment in terms of getting ourselves realigned," Straun said. "This is a major step and it was a very tough decision to make." 

Straun also stressed that while Artspace is closing its physical doors, its mission continues. Effective immediately, Artspace's flat file collection will go to the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, which has seen its own staff and board resignations in the past several months. Meanwhile, its annual Summer Apprenticeship Program will continue at Creative Arts Workshop's longtime home at 80 Audubon St.

It also plans to continue its rotating schedule of exhibitions with fellow arts organizations, but has not yet identified when or where its next exhibitions might be, Straun said. Its last show in the Orange Street space, [Voicings], ended in April of this year. Its last event there was an annual Love Notes fundraiser in May. 

"We remain optimistic and are looking at this as an opportunity to reimagine what Artspace could be," Straun said. "We're looking at this moment as an opportunity to think creatively, but also to honor Artspace and its legacy and what it means in the community."

In the past several months, she said, artists have reached out with messages of frustration and also support, all sharing what Artspace means to them. "We don't take that lightly."

Artspace currently employs four staff members, including part-time Development Associate Isaac Jean-François, part-time Program Coordinator Steve Roberts, full-time Visual Culture Producer Gabriel Sacco and part-time Development Associate Lynn Landau. 

Director of Exhibitions Laurel V. McLaughlin, who first joined Artspace as a guest curator in June 2021, left the organization in March of this year.  In a phone call Friday afternoon, Straun praised remaining staff members for their work and dedication during such a transitional period. She said that all are staying on for the moment.  

Board member Mistina Hanscom, who came onto the board in September of last year, said that she is cautiously optimistic as Artspace becomes itinerant, not unlike Long Wharf Theatre did last year. As an artist, a board member and a small business owner in the city, she said, she sees herself as able to look at the situation through multiple lenses. 

"I feel that no matter which direction Artspace is going that the arts community of New Haven is strong with it and also without it," she wrote Friday morning by text. "So we need to work hard to redefine our footing and mend some still open wounds."

"It's an exciting challenge for me to explore where Artspace can actually insert itself in the current climate to enhance the growth and meet the expectation that many artists and activists are working towards here in the city," she continued. "Artspace is a small organization and it's no secret that we're struggling. But we are actively working towards our big ambitions. And I'm proud of that."  

It is not the first time Artspace will be without a permanent home. Prior to its move to Orange Street in 2002, Artspace leased a number of temporary spaces, but had not found a hub until it settled in the Ninth Square. For just over two decades, it has been a cultural and creative anchor in the neighborhood, even as businesses rapidly change around it. In the past five years, it has also been part of the neighborhood's revival, a change that came largely with Beacon Properties.  

The move also comes at a time when three of the city's visual arts organizations have found themselves in transition. In late January, Anne Coates announced her resignation from Creative Arts Workshop (CAW), where she had served as executive director for close to six years. Then in March and April of this year, the Ely Center for Contemporary Art found itself at the center of its own reckoning, as artists and community members demanded more accountability from the organization. 

Keeping "The Spirit Of City-Wide Open Studios" Alive

CWOSSat - 4

Artist Jihyun Lee in her studio at Erector Square in October 2021. Charlotte Hughes File Photo.

In the meantime, over a dozen of the city's artists have launched a grassroots, entirely volunteer-based effort to continue some version of City-Wide Open Studios, a celebration of art and artists that for years took place each October through Artspace.

Painter Eric March, who has practiced out of his Erector Square studio since 2015, said he and fellow artists are excited to keep the event going, with or without the endorsement of an institution. Erector Square weekend is currently scheduled at 315 Peck St. on Oct. 21 and 22 of this year. A subsequent Westville weekend is set to take place at Lotta Studio and West River Arts on Whalley Avenue on Oct. 28 and 29. 

"Obviously, we [artists] were following what was going on with Artspace as closely as we could, and it became clear a couple months ago that they were not going to be able to put on Open Studios," March said in a phone call Friday afternoon. "We began forming plans around making it happen on our own."

Two months ago, artists started meeting virtually every few weeks to figure out how to hold an open studios event, March said. From a core group—March shouted out Martha Lewis, Oi Fortin, and Dexterity Press' Jeff Meuller as particularly invested—it grew to 10 to 15 attendees. Now, he said, they are in the process of each taking a specific job to "distribute the load so nobody gets burned out."

As of this month, almost two dozen studios in Erector Square have already signed up to participate. They include Dganit Zauberman, whose evocative and layered landscapes contain whole universes, painter and surrealist Jihyun Lee, community-based design firm Atelier Cue and textile and installation artist Marsha Borden among many others.  

March said that artists "wanted to continue the spirit of CWOS" because many have  benefitted personally, creatively and professionally from the event. Because his work was on Artspace's webpage during a pandemic-proofed, virtual open studios in fall 2020, he landed commissions with the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and Yale Health. For him, it was also one weekend of the year that he could count on seeing both new and familiar faces.   

"You could kind of open your doors and people came in, which was awesome because it's hard to reach new audiences sometimes," he said. "So we're gonna give it a shot this year and see what happens." 

Both March and artist-organizer Martha Lewis added that the celebration comes at a meaningful time for Erector Square. The building, a former toy factory that has lived many lives, turns 100 this year. In addition to the open studios themselves, the celebration will include radio broadcast from WPKN and exhibitions of model trains and vintage cars that pay homage to creator A.C. Gilbert. 

"The place has survived a world war, recessions and has been a welcoming beacon to artists of all levels, genres, backgrounds," Lewis wrote in an email to the Arts Paper Saturday morning. "It is packed and lively and I hope everyone comes out the see this living testament to human ingenuity for themselves. I find the place and it’s history profound and moving and this is a chance to celebrate something really unique in New Haven."

Lewis added that she is sad to see Artspace leave its physical home, and wary of the decision to move the flatfiles to another institution in turmoil. When she participated in City-Wide Open Studios for the first time, it was 2006, and Helen Kauder was still the director of Artspace. "It was a lot of fun," Lewis remembered—and it kept her coming back to the event.

In the time after that, she has seen the organization go through several transitions, including a leadership shakeup with Executive Director Leslie Shaffer in 2008. What she doesn't want, she said, is to see artists suffer as a consequence of internal strife at any organization. 

As an artist and curator who has also worked in the 50 Orange St. space—her projects include SCRAWL, Instructions Not Included, Agit Crop, CT (Un)Bound, several Flatfile shows and Vertical Reach among others—she said that she also sees a real need for artists to have space to exhibit their work, from Artspace to NXTHVN to the Institute Library to the NHFPL's branch locations to the Yale University Art Gallery and artist-led cooperative galleries. "We need everything," she said. She's mourning that loss. 

"We need more" rather than fewer physical spaces for artists, she added. "Right now the pie is tiny, and being here as an artist is less and less compelling, regardless of what the NYT would have one believe. Artists make neighborhoods desirable; artists create collective goods that everyone consumes including all of the making and crafting and online viewing everyone was needing so badly during lockdown. We made that. Artists need to be the drivers, to be more inclusive, innovative and to get credit for all we do. I do like the project grants for the city and see that as hopeful."

 To learn more about Artspace and to read a statement from Board President Kara Straun, visit its website. To learn more about artist-led efforts to relaunch CWOS, click here