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Poole: It's Time For Equity In The Arts

Lucy Gellman | June 19th, 2019

Poole: It's Time For Equity In The Arts

Politics  |  Arts & Culture  |  Mayoral Campaign 2019  |  Seth Poole

 

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Seth Poole: “It’s like, equity. I just think we need to allow for access to creative outlets and take down barriers.” Lucy Gellman Photo. 

For decades, Seth Poole has watched New Haven put on cultural programming for people who don’t look like him. If elected mayor, he has a plan for how he would change it. 

Poole, 43, laid out that arts platform in a recent interview at Koffee? On Audubon Street, in a discussion that ranged from his own childhood in New Haven to proposed arts, culture and tourism policy in a Poole administration. After announcing his candidacy in May, he is running for mayor against incumbent Toni Harp and Democratic hopefuls Justin Elicker, Urn Pendragon and Wendy Hamilton. Poole is running in this election cycle as an unaffiliated candidate.

“The arts have always been more of an extracurricular activity for the affluent,” he said. “Definitely in this community. It’s like, ‘do your homework, then take piano lessons.’ These things went together for children with intact households. Two-parent households.”

A lot of that platform has been informed by his own life in New Haven. Born and raised in the city’s West River neighborhood, Poole was first drawn to the arts through a record collection in his grandmother’s dining room, where stacks of vinyl sat untouched against a back wall. 

After realizing that the record player was broken—meaning none of those titles were played—he recalled walking downtown to Cutler’s Records at just eight, and asking for the necessary part to make it work. Even then, he said, he was determined to fix the record player himself.

“There were no big Christmases or things like that because we were on welfare,” he said. “We used a lot of trash to have fun. So it’s like, a lot of the innovation that we grew up with came from that.”

The record player became Poole’s education in music history. As he soaked in the music of the Four Tops, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye—"I dreamed in it,” he recalled—he also joined the choir at Edgewood School. At the time, he said, the school had a relationship with the Yale Repertory Theatre, meaning that he and other Edgewood students were briefly part of the ensemble in the 1985 production of Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. His friend still keeps a picture from the production on the wall of her home.

In those years, Poole also met New Haven jazz musician Bill Brown, who invited students from the school to tour his Woodbridge recording studio. He fell in love with records, saving his lunch money so he could buy a new LP each week at a nearby Hamden record store called The Distributor, that closed down after the owner was robbed in the 1990s. He learned to play guitar and tried out visual art, copying his favorite album covers in his middle school art classes.

And in seventh grade, he and a friend vowed to start a rap group, taking notes from the late TC Izlam, who then called New Haven home. They didn't get very far. But they tried out a few tracks. 

“I was a mess,” he said. “I was a mess. But I was a musical kind of mess. Hip-hop was my new religion at that point—like I’d basically traded in Christianity for hip-hop.“

When Poole graduated from high school, it was to attend Trinity College, where he developed an interest in Chinese history and culture while also starting work at the college radio station. His entry into the DJ booth was completely accidental: he was a quiet guy, who retreated to his room to make mixtapes when his peers started getting high on the weekends.

“I didn’t want to be around cocaine, because my upbringing in New Haven was cocaine and crack, and illy or wet or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “It was affluent white people. Literally, penguin suits and trays covered in white lines, and when the sun went down, I was like, ‘Look, this ain’t for me.’”

One night, someone dropped by his room with an interest in the hip-hop music that Poole was playing. It turned out he was a host at the school's radio station. Poole tried mixing a few tracks on the air. He was hooked.

As he honed his skills as a DJ, Poole brought arts back to the classroom. He found himself writing academically on music that came out of protest culture, drawing narrative lines from the enslavement of Africans on American soil to lyrics penned by Chinese rock musician Cui Jian in the last half of the twentieth century. He brought it with him when he wrote his thesis, and then went on to teach English in China after college. 

“Those messages and those art forms span the planet,” he said.

After college, Poole moved to Jersey City with the hopes of getting a job at the Chinese consulate in New York. Then 9/11 happened. He worked as a DJ for months with friends. He considered a professional career in music (he still organizes concerts at The State House). But his mom and grandmother were also worried about him. They called frequently to ask what he was up to, and when he was coming back to New Haven. He returned to the city in 2001.

When he came back to New Haven, Poole “lived at Toad’s [Place],” but felt like a lot of the city’s cultural scene wasn’t for him, or for the folks he’d grown up around. Instead, he said he noticed that it was segregated by design—that a lot of local arts organizations assumed that only white patrons wanted buy-in. There wasn't programming designed for people of color, and there wasn't a pathway to access for kids or adults who couldn't afford what was offered. 

“It’s like, equity,” he said. “I just think we need to allow for access to creative outlets and take down barriers.”

He cited Music Haven as one of the only organizations—if not the only organization—in the city to fully remove economic barriers (the organization's director, Mandi Jackson, has spoken publicly about fighting "redlining in the arts" with her work). He said he knows it takes work: Music Haven offers tuition-free lessons and accounts for transportation, food security, bilingual materials and a brick-and-mortar space in one of the neighborhoods it serves. But if that's what's required for an equitable framework, he said that he wants to see it more widely practiced. 

Meanwhile, he sees other organizations as expressing an interest in equity and inclusion, but not doing the work to get there. He called out the Neighborhood Music School, where tuition-free programming remains radically different in scope from private lessons, and group or summer classes can be cost prohibitive for most parents.

“They only make a way for some folks,” he said. “So maybe it’s afforded to the gifted kid. When you find a 7-year-old male alto who is gifted in singing, you find coaches and you get behind him and you do that. But a kid from Newhallville who goes to Lincoln-Bassett is probably never going to have that opportunity.”

In a Poole administration, he said he would turn to a more collaborative model for arts programming, beginning with New Haven’s youngest residents. He said he’d like to see the Board of Education make music and visual arts a requirement—not an elective—for all public school students through the end of high school. Currently, music classes are offered through eighth grade, and then become specialized at several of the city's schools. 

Instead of cutting back on the arts and humanities, as the city’s Board of Education proposed earlier this year, he said he would increase support for arts in the schools. He suggested the city could encourage New Haven organizations to partner more directly with the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) by providing them with funding explicitly for those projects.

“Those formative years, when kids are struggling with their sexuality and all of that stuff, music and arts are an outlet that makes them whole,” he said. “It helps get them through all of these points in time when their attitudes, values and feelings don’t line up with the world around them. It needs to be something that is part of the culture.”

He called the city's current Division of Arts, Culture and Tourism a huge missed opportunity for homegrown economic development. In the time since he has moved back to New Haven, Poole said he’s watched as the city puts time and resources into attracting arts patrons from the Connecticut Shoreline and surrounding towns—instead of the Black and Latinx families who have called New Haven home for generations.

“For some reason, somebody from out of town is always the head [of Arts, Culture and Tourism],” he said. “New Haven’s a carpetbagger kind of town. People come, suck up the culture, come for the pizza, and then they go on to the next chapter of their lives. Whereas there are those of us … my counterparts are five, six, seven generations born and raised in New Haven. Very rarely is anything geared toward them.”

“Black people are the number one consumers in the world,” he continued. “Not just in New Haven, or America. And if our needs are met, we’ve proven that we can spend a dollar.”

As mayor, he said, he would encourage the division to shift its focus to grantmaking initiatives for local artists, citing The State House as one of the only downtown venues that had started to put local musicians of color on main stages as both feature performers and openers on a weekly basis. 

He rattled off names that he’d like to see on the main stage at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and College Street Music Hall, including Phat A$tronaut, The Breed, Ceschi, and Boogie Chillun among others (he also named Rohn Lawrence, who played the main stage with Thabisa this month). He suggested biannual music festivals in Edgewood Park. He said that he estimates such a change would bring in “tens of millions of dollars annually.”

“There are so many artists,” he said. “They can go overseas, and make $10,000 in a weekend, but they can’t make $5 in your own town because no one knows who you are.”

He also suggested that as mayor, he would work on courting donors and developers who are interested in turning old and empty buildings into cultural hubs instead of luxury apartments that displace families. He cited the long-suffering Goffe Street Armory, currently owned by the city (get its history here and here), as a potential co-working space, food incubator, constellation of music and art studios.

He noted the now-empty shell of the Connecticut Tennis Center as a site for the first-ever Edgewood Park Music Festival, a weekend-long celebration of local artists by and for New Haveners. He mourned the loss of Dixwell Avenue establishments that thrived in the early twentieth century, and suggested that the city could be putting more money and legislative support back into the area’s redevelopment, where projects are unfolding for NXTHVN, the new Q House, and ConnCORP.

“These streets live and breathe art,” he said. “We don’t capitalize on the art. I see this city as a canvas that can be painted … and we have to build people’s connection to the city and give them a way to earn a living.”

For him, Poole said, part of that means rearranging funding models within the division and City Hall. While he would retain the position of city arts czar, currently occupied by Andy Wolf, he said he would likely rehire for the job, looking for “someone who has proven that they are dedicated to the growth of the arts, who has skin in the game, who has a very diverse palate.”

During his time in New Haven, Wolf (who grew up in New Haven and has spent time in Los Angeles) 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.

While Poole lauded some of those initiatives, he said that he wants somebody who sees New Haven as a cultural mecca because of the artists who already live in the city, and have for years or entire lifetimes. He applauded the International Festival of Arts & Ideas for bringing on longtime community leaders Aleta Stanton and Chaz Carmon, and said he wants to see a mayor who urges nonprofits to make the same commitment to diversity in their staff and programming.

“We cater to the outsiders to come in,” he said. “And even when we cater to local people, it still has to be palatable enough for outsiders. You know?”

But he also believes in regional collaboration, and said he would push it actively as mayor. Currently, he sees New Haven as a cultural destination that could collaborate more with organizations in Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury. As technology takes root in those cities, he suggested the arts can serve as a vibrant connector, and catalyst for regional conversation. 

“In addition to the arts, there are so many collaborations between Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury,” he said. “We’re connected through rail and public transportation, which makes New Haven ideal for festivals and art. Not for nothing, a great deal of the people who are living in Bridgeport and Waterbury have been displaced by gentrification in New York, so they bring that historical knowledge and their money. And we don’t even know that they’re there.”

“You gotta force feed it,” he added. “That’s the position of leadership.”

This marks our fourth installment of this mayoral campaign season, in which talk to candidates about proposed and existing arts policy. Read what Mayor Toni Harp had to say here, Justin Elicker here and Urn Pendragon here