Yale Schwarzman Center Opens Its Doors

Lucy Gellman | February 22nd, 2023

Yale Schwarzman Center Opens Its Doors

Downtown  |  Arts & Culture  |  Yale University  |  Yale Schwarzman Center

YSCTour - 1

The Dome, part of the new 123,000 square foot YSC. 

Maurice Harris raised his eyes to the ceiling, tracing a lattice of white wooden beams and a soaring glass dome above them. Through it, the New Haven sky looked close, as if Harris could reach out and touch it with his palm. Across the street, Grove Street Cemetery was quiet. Cars rumbled over a mural reminding Yale to pay its fair share. A sense of wonder danced behind his eyes.

“We like to say it’s our own black box theater,” he said to no one in particular. Around him, the room echoed with the words. 

Harris is the director of marketing and communications at the Yale Schwarzman Center, a new-old, $162.8 million, 123,000 square foot fine and performing arts center at the corner of College and Grove Streets in downtown New Haven. Reopened to Yale students in 2021, the building is now extending its reach to the wider community, with a calendar of upcoming arts events that are both Yale- and non-Yale focused. 

It is named after Blackstone CEO and former Trump ally and advisor Stephen Schwarzman, who in 2015 made a historic gift of $150 million to the college. Initially built in 1901 and renovated from 2016 to 2021 by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP, the building now welcomes roughly 4,000 students each day.  Take a virtual tour here.   

On a recent Monday, Harris and Executive Director Rachel Fine shepherded a group of reporters through the building, which includes two dining halls, two theaters, a dance studio, snack shop, balcony and basement study and meeting spaces, underground bar, and a “Good Life” center dedicated to student mental health. As the two walked, they spoke about their hopes for the building, which has been home to several new commissions in the past year. 

YSCTour - 13-1

Fine in The Underground, a dining space that also has a stage and flexible seating for performances. 

“It’s incredibly important to me that we are not just a cultural resource for Yale University students, faculty, staff, but for the community as well,” said Fine, who served as the executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles until last fall. She noted how excited she was to see New Haven listed among the top 52 places to visit in the New York Times.

“We want to be part of that excitement,” she said. “One of our goals is getting situated in the greater New Haven community. I think it’s gonna look a variety of ways depending on the partnerships that we establish. It’s really an overarching, broad vision, but it starts with building those relationships.”

It is, perhaps, an ambitious mission. Schwarzman’s 2015 donation, which ultimately totaled $162.8 million, included naming rights to a cultural epicenter on campus where most performances envision a future that he is actively destroying. Among his other crowning achievements are deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and accelerating the global housing crisis. It leaves a visitor wondering if or when Yale will change the name of the space, just as university officials did with the former Calhoun College in 2017.  

YSCTour - 2

YSCTour - 6

Top: Harris outside of the Presidents' Room. He envisions a gallery in the hallways, which are currently blank. Bottom: Commons. 

And yet, it’s also a place where artists are able to experiment, collaborate, and workshop their pieces, from site-specific vocal performance to dance collaborations that take the original turn-of-the-century architecture into account. It has jumped on a series of partnerships, including with the Shubert Theatre, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. When Yale remained closed to the public during the first years of the Covid-19 pandemic, staff figured out how to get outside the building. 

Even before it opened in 2021, for instance, the YSC partnered virtually with the Yale Dance Lab and 16 choreographers, including young dancers at the Neighborhood Music School. Last year, it worked with theatermakers to present This Place Is A Message and Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man, both sweeping works about climate change set outdoors, including in the pouring spring rain. During the International Festival of Arts & Ideas last summer, the center helped support Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Parable of the Sower as it came to the Shubert Theatre in downtown New Haven. 

YSCTour - 9

Harris and Inner-City News Editor Babz Rawls-Ivy.

As it opens its doors to the greater New Haven community, Harris said, the physical space is now meant to be part of that creative and collaborative vision. In the gently curving hallways on the first and second floors, he sees potential gallery space. In The Presidents’ Room, outfitted with new technology and restored to its original butter-yellow color, he’s excited for the conversations that have yet to take place, and the dialogues that already have. So too downstairs in The Well, a bar open Wednesday through Friday from 7 to 11 p.m.  

Taking reporters to the third floor, Harris marveled at The Dome, a former yearbook office that is now an unorthodox kind of black box theater. On a given weekday, Harris said, it might be home to any number of student groups looking for rehearsal space. It recently hosted S P A C E, a multi-day collaboration among musician and composer Nathalie Joachim, violinist Yvonne Lam and lighting designer Nicholas Houfek.

Depending on where one was in the room, “you could hear the performance from different perspectives,” he said. 

Harris is also excited by the potential for new performance spaces, he added. In the basement, the YSC boasts a large dance studio that is almost constantly full, with student groups that sometimes rehearse late into the evening. In addition to the Hogwarts-like Commons, there is The Underground, with a stage tucked back behind a cafeteria that hosts day-to-night dining platforms. Two floors above it, students can study or chat on the balconies or seek support in the “Good Life Center,” which has relocated to the building from Silliman College.

YSCTour - 14

A detail of The Well, an underground bar open Wednesdays through Fridays.

“So who can use the space?” cut in Babz Rawls-Ivy, editor of the Inner-City News, on a recent press tour. She was standing directly below the Oculus, a sky-facing window that rests at the top of the dome. “Do you have a community advisory board?”

“It really is a collaborative process in conjunction with our community partners,” Harris said, although there is no such advisory board at this time. He pointed to capacity audiences for musician Angélique Kidjo and her daughter, Naima Hebrail Kidjo, producers Daryl Roth, Kamilah Forbes, and Zibby Owens, and a performance of Toto Kisaku’s Requiem for an Electric Chair that had a waitlist of over 100 people. “The exciting part of being in startup mode is the experimentation.”

While the majority of the YSC’s events take place on campus, in the building at the corner of College and Grove Streets, the Schwarzman is also a psychic space, with performances that transfer over to the Shubert Theatre, and Yale’s West Campus. 

Fine, who replaced inaugural Executive Director Garth Ross, said she was drawn to the position in part for that reason: the whole building presents a chance to think differently about performance and collaboration both within and beyond the Yale community. There are alternative spaces on each floor, from the dining halls to The Dome. She remembered attending an opening for the YSC last year, and feeling thrilled by the possibilities.

"It was an opportunity to see the building fully activated for the first time,” she said. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to create a new direction.”