|Mayor Toni Harp: “Part of the reason that we have such a vivacious, activated city is because of the arts. It’s often overlooked, but it’s part of what makes life inspiring and interesting for all of us.” Lucy Gellman Photo.|
Mayor Toni Harp hopes to dance into her fourth term in office. And if she does, her plan is to build on arts programming that already exists, while expanding the city’s cultural support in New Haven’s neighborhoods.
Harp outlined that plan in a recent interview at City Hall, framed by a massive map of New Haven that hangs in her office. This year, she is running for reelection against 2013 opponent Justin Elicker, educator and labor organizer Seth Poole, and housing and homelessness advocates Wendy Hamilton and Urn Pendragon.
“Part of the reason that we have such a vivacious, activated city is because of the arts,” she said. “It’s often overlooked, but it’s part of what makes life inspiring and interesting for all of us.”
Harp’s first exposure to the arts took place far from New Haven, during her childhood in Utah. Born to a professional dancer and raised by her grandmother, Harp grew up taking dance lessons, which gradually became piano lessons, then violin lessons, then the school choir.
In her school library, she spent study breaks looking at student art installations. During those years, she began a love affair with dance that stayed with her through a childhood polio diagnosis and weekly school dances where only one classmate ever asked her to join in.
“I love to dance, because there’s a certain amount of freedom of expression that comes from that,” she said. “And I think we all have that.”
Acting, too, became a sort of release for her during those years (click here for a 2014 article on flexing those skills in City Hall). Raised in the Baptist church, Harp first came to performance through poetry recitation, a skill that stayed with her through undergraduate theater at Roosevelt College in Chicago and then the Alliance Theatre (now the Alliance Children’s Theatre) in New Haven. Years ago, she played one of the witches in its production of Howard Richardson and William Berney’s Dark of the Moon. When she wasn’t acting, she was serving on the board by constructing and striking sets.
“I think that having that experience made me not as terrified to speak in public as I would have been otherwise,” she said. “In many ways, we are not often intentional about it. But part of what makes life worth living, in many respects, is having a way to artistically interpret our beliefs about the world. And I think we all do that sometimes without even realizing.”
The experience changed the way she looked at arts learning and at New Haven. When Harp became a mom herself, she sent her daughters to the now-shuttered Dixwell Children's Creative Arts Center, of which State Rep. Toni Walker was then executive director. She began making jewelry, navigating the intricacies of owning a small business while rising in state politics. As recently as last year, she took drawing classes at Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) on Audubon Street.
In New Haven, she added, those experiences have fed her belief in arts education. While recent curricular consolidations have reduced the number of arts offerings in some schools (or meant that they operate on an after-school and volunteer basis) she noted that there is at least one music teacher per school, praising NHPS Performing and Visual Arts Supervisor Ellen Maust for her work in the district. She also recalled a recent Board of Education meeting, at which students performed selections from the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
They’ve also convinced her that the arts play a vital role in New Haven’s economy. In six years, she has placed her cultural focus largely on city’s downtown, making the case for the arts as a catalyst for economic development. That began shortly after she entered City Hall in 2013, when she hired Andy Wolf to run the city’s division of Arts, Culture and Tourism.
During his time in New Haven, Wolf has split his focus between "branding" New Haven and bringing in acts from both in and outside the city and the state, many of which have performed publicly on the New Haven Green or at City Hall. He has also thrown the city several birthday parties, coordinated large-scale events including the city’s Grand Prix, and helped facilitate New Haven's budding sister city relationship with Changsha, China.
Reached by email Monday, Wolf praised Harp’s “passion for the arts, creative transformation, and remarkable grasp of a new urbanism that had taken root” in the city.
“Who could have imagined a Washington Post feature on destination romantic getaways, or a Bloomberg Trend Analysis on the top locations for millennials to call ‘home’ with New Haven at the top of the list!” he wrote. “We continue to promote, promote, promote our dynamic creative sector to achieve their highest ideals and aspirations with a City Hall so grateful for the (often under-recognized) powerful intellectual, social, artistic and humanistic contributions that has resulted in New Haven emerging as a global destination in the creativity economy.”
Describing her administration’s work in the city, Harp noted her early support of College Street Music Hall in 2014, when it looked like Yale might block construction over an easement. She suggested that her support has paid off: College Street brought in over $16 million in 2018, according to a study released last week through the New Haven Center for Performing Arts.
Moving mentally across the street she added the Shubert Theatre, then the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art that sit a few blocks away down Chapel Street. She mentioned that she sees the frequent reproduction of the YCBA’s collection as a sort of shout out to the city, which packs a fair amount of art into its 18.7 square miles.
“We get about two million visitors a year, and many of them come just to see the art that we have here in town,” Harp said. “A lot of people come for our music, and of course that’s art too.”
Currently, she said, she hopes the city can provide similar support to Long Wharf Theatre as it decides whether to pursue a downtown cabaret space with the Shubert and Albertus Magnus College in the Crown Street Garage's commercial space. Earlier this year, the New Haven Center for Performing Arts won a bid for that space, but backed out after disagreements with the city's parking authority. On Thursday morning, Long Wharf’s Managing Director Joshua Borenstein confirmed that “it is still something that we’re looking at.”
“We’re hopeful that we can work with them and the parking authority on that space, to provide development funds to support that collaboration,” Harp said. “So that’s innovative if that happens.”
She added that her fourth term vision for the arts extends beyond downtown, and goes deep into all of the city’s neighborhoods. In addition to the city’s continuing percent for art program, collaboration with community management teams, and support of public art projects going up in the Hill-to-Downtown Corridor, she zeroed in on the role of arts in the planned redevelopment of Long Wharf, noting that she sees the eponymous theater as both a cultural and economic anchor in the area.
In Dixwell, she said she is also excited for the opening of NXTHVN (Next Haven), and the collaborative work that artist and founder Titus Kaphar has proposed doing with students from James Hillhouse High School. She praised the incubator, of which there has been significant state support, as a sign that New Haven is a place where artists can live and practice their work, instead of taking it elsewhere.
She pointed to the work that the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees has been doing each summer with its weekly Cool Breeze jazz concerts and free Friday night movies in city parks, as well as a second-year effort to revitalize the New Haven Green with dance and music on Friday afternoons. City spokesperson Laurence Grotheer added that the city bought its own stage in 2017 specifically for that purpose, so “it’s easier and more cost-effective to host events.”
She also noted the city’s renewed support for Gospel Fest in Goffe Street Park after an eight-year hiatus, annual “CB3B” basketball tournament, and ongoing support for LunarFest with the Yale-China Association. Each year that she has participated in the parade, she’s been particularly tickled by the dancing lions, who take red envelopes into their mouths as a symbol of good luck.
Despite ongoing budget negotiations, she hopes to grow that support in the next year. This year, she has allocated an extra $40,000 in her proposed budget for the annual Mayor's Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grant, with the idea that more money will go to local artists with small, project-based needs. With the funding available, she said she believes it’s on artists to know to apply—and to seek help in City Hall if they have questions.
“I don’t think it’s the city’s responsibility to develop them [programs], but I do think it’s the city’s responsibility to support the development of,” she said. “So when people come to us for support, then we do what we can to support them.”
In response to Justin Elicker's criticism that city funds have gone to non-New Haven artists in the past two years, she staunchly defended photographer Rob Goldman and his iMatter Project, noting that the city has thought about it as empowering the city’s youth first, and serving a purpose as public art second.
“A lot of it has to do with who comes with the idea,” she said. “While I’m sure that there were many photographers who saw it as art—and it was art—we saw it as a way to positively portray the way in which our young people interact with the world. And it was the idea that sold it, not the art.”
“I know that there are going to be some people that are unhappy about that,” she added. “Look. If there are artists that have ideas like that … they’ve got to come and share those with us! If there are some naysayers, come! We’re here to help.”
This marks our second installment of this mayoral campaign season, in which talk to candidates about proposed and existing arts policy. To see the first, with mayoral hopeful Justin Elicker, here.