Jaii Marc Renee's I'm Strong but I'm Tired, which will be on view at the Chez Est in Hartford from December 9 through the 31 of this year. Photo courtesy of the New Haven Pride Center.
An anchor of New Haven’s LGBTQ+ community is growing its statewide footprint this month—and starting with visual art. Instead of a single gallery dedicated to work by and for queer artists, Connecticut will now have three.
“For me, what’s exciting is this idea of working with more people in the community,” said Patrick Dunn, executive director at the New Haven Pride Center.
Dunn laid groundwork for the expansion earlier this year, during a statewide phased economic reopening that has since been rolled back. Months ago, Chez Est owner John Pepe asked Dunn what he thought about adding a gallery component to the space, which has long been known as a beloved LGBTQ+ restaurant, bar, and cabaret theater. The two have known each other for years: the Chez is a supporter of the center, and has often opened its stage to Dunn’s drag alter ego Kiki Lucia.
“The Chez is the community’s space,” Pepe said. “It belongs to them. To be able to use its walls to display the works of queer artists means the world to us.”
Renee praised the center for the expansion and noted that the exhibition series “has been a blessing to me.” When the center mounted his first solo show earlier this year, it allowed him to reach a larger audience. When Dunn put the work online in the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns, it allowed him to share it on a virtual platform.
Dunn approached HCAI about a gallery during a visit to the space earlier this fall. Founded in 2016 by longtime HIV advocate Gary Blick, the organization moved into a new, larger building last year to serve the 500 to 700 patients who come through its doors. Dunn came in for an appointment and found himself staring at the blank wall space, wishing something more inviting were there to greet him.
On its lower floor, HCAI is building out a pharmacy and free community clothing closet with a mural from Bridgeport-based artist Ricky Mestre. Dunn suggested putting a gallery in to fill the blank, bright white wall space. HCAI Director Pattie McKnight, as well as Creative Director Thomas Evans, jumped at the idea..
“We're really excited about it, because it does go along with our mission of fighting stigma and discrimination,” Evans said. “For one, we want to create a safe place for people to be able to show their work, to express themselves. We're all about creating a safe place for people to come with no fear, no judgement.”
Evans said he ultimately envisions the gallery as a gathering space, although in-person events will have to wait until COVID-19 cases in the state are much lower than they are currently. He added that he’s excited to have a physical space to display art made by and for LGBTQ+ audiences at a time when so much of queer life—and life in general—has moved online. Because HCAI is a healthcare provider, it will hold exhibitions every three months, for a total of four per year.
“A lot of visibility now is online with social media,” Evans said. “But I think it lends something really special when you can actually, physically put your art somewhere. We do hope to be able to use it as a community space.”
Both the Pride Center and Chez Est have planned to hold shows on a rotating monthly basis. In the next year, Dunn said that looks like 25 exhibitions across the three different cities, for which the center has opened a call for LGBTQ+ artists and guest curators on its website. Due to COVID-19, exhibition tours will still be virtual and by appointment only for the foreseeable future.
“The Center is proud of its contributions to the cultural landscape of Connecticut over the past three years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dunn said. “Where all of our virtual exhibitions have not just resulted in showcasing queer art but also in sales which is putting money in queer artists’ hands at a time where everyone’s finances are so up in the air.”
Visit the Pride Center’swebsitefor more information.