OCTOBER 5, 2010 | New Haven Advocate
Project Storefronts Lets Artists Drive the Local Economy
Written by Christopher Arnott | Kathleen Cei Photos
Note: fiZz Agency was hired by the New Haven Department of Cultural Affairs to design the Project Storefronts identity. We also participated in the project as a weekend storefront under City Wide Open Studios during the kick-off festival at Artspace. This was called Project Storefronts Micro-Fest and ran from Friday, September 24–26. The writer of this story states: “another a colorful display by Bridgeport artist Khyal Braun” below. However, this should have been stated as “another a colorful display by Bridgeport artists Karl Heine + kHyal who created the DesignerGrill pop-up store.”
Giving artists the keys
Margaret Bodell has been down this road before.
Seriously, just two blocks over from here, and over two decades ago. That’s when she and a couple of friends founded a storefront art gallery on Crown Street devilishly named Art in Heaven. Bodell also talked other landlords into letting her and her artist friends transform front windows into art until the spaces were rented or demolished. Building on these talents and connections, she co-founded the community-based Umbrella Arts gallery in the East Village within a few years.
Her New York standing is still strong — last month she hosted the Governors Island Art Fair. But Bodell is also a Ninth Square celebrity anew, having masterminded one of the most acclaimed and audacious New Haven art projects of the year in the groundfloor suite of deserted offices on Orange between Crown and Chapel streets.
The project involves storefronts, of course. But instead of the accustomed window-dressing that is all that most art/business relationships amount to, Project Storefronts invites artists to open the shops themselves and become small-business entrepreneurs. They keep regular hours (in this case 11 a.m.-6 p.m., often extending those hours for opening receptions and other special events). They price their work clearly and reasonably. They retain good relationships with the other artsy retailers in the multi-store complex. Yet these small businesses can’t be mistaken for standard gift boutiques or museum shops. They aren’t overstocked, or compromised by the need to stimulate impulse-buys. They’re art-driven, not sales-driven.
Still, Project Storefronts has been constructed on principles as economic as they are artistic, as developmental as they are experimental. The program acknowledges that, as hard as it is to create art, selling it can be harder. So it lets artists focus on art by removing one of the main headaches of brick-and-mortar shopkeeping: It waives all rent and utility costs. This freedom to experiment with the entrepreneurial model is fundamental to what makes Project Storefronts a unique and groundbreaking bridge between the arts and business communities. But in allowing the stores to be used as stores and in involving the artists as responsible tenants and not just decorators, Project Storefronts is building a dialogue that landlords and economic development committees understand.
This isn’t one of those old schemes where patrons hand over unused or unwanted resources to starving artists. This is the next level, involving deeper interactions, usefulness and a platform on which the artists’ incipient, innovative business plans can build.
You’re on Your Own
Project Storefronts has the powerhouse support of the City of New Haven’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs (for whom Bodell has been a consultant on public art projects for the past few years) and The Residences at Ninth Square, which manages the Project Storefronts site (formerly a suite of United Way offices).
There’s a downside, naturally. Nothing lasts forever, and free rent is a sizeable gift. The initial phase of Project Storefronts is slated to end at the end of this month. Moves are afoot to extend the lease; otherwise, the organizers and entrepreneurs have to trust that the momentum they’ve generated will follow them to wherever they end up next.
The reaction so far has been beyond anything the organizers foresaw — glowing articles in newspapers and magazines, events packed with art-world newcomers and the renewal of an arts-collective spirit in New Haven that parallels the resurgence of Project Storefronts’ cross-the-street neighbors at Artspace.
As described in a New Haven City Hall press release, Project Storefronts “encourages artists and ‘creative entrepreneurs’ to test the viability of new creative and arts-related retail … by providing access to empty retail spaces.” That’s a pretty deadening description for what, overnight, has become a vibrant and valuable gathering space.
Margaret Bodell’s description is blunter: “Five hundred dollars, and the space, and you’re on your own.”
The $500 is “for build-out only” — basic renovations like shelving and carpeting. Most of the first crop of tenants have furnished their spaces with borrowed or recycled furniture — thrifty, but also in keeping with the environmental ethics and frugality that many of the artists practice.
The Upcycle shop, for instance, has been selling chairs rescued from Dumpsters, which have been reupholstered with other recycled materials. They have handbags made from old banners that were once unfurled along I-95. One artist specializes in children’s clothes; another works with inmates in Connecticut prisons.
Ken Janke, co-founder of The Grove, which anchors the right-hand side of the complex, says none of his fancy office furniture was bought new. “Everything is recycled, repurposed, renewed,” he says. “These chairs are from an office boardroom, those tables were built by a friend.”
None of the storefronts seem slapdash — signage ranges from the giant “Project Storefronts” banner that unifies the shops to a stenciled metal sandwich board outside Detritus. These are confident announcements, not scribbled notes on telephone poles.
The Grove stands out from the pack, because it has more in common with the program’s entrepreneurial model than its arts-market output. The Grove is a networking and office-resource center that, for a membership fee, allows access to Wi-Fi, printers, workspaces, conference rooms and other elements of old-school business that are not as commonplace in the current home-computer workspace age.
Using more traditional models of operation, The Grove is serving the same sort of entrepreneurs as Project Storefronts is. Janke characterizes Project Storefronts as “pop-up projects, where we hope they can become profitable businesses.” The Grove, he hastens to add, is “not a pop-up — we want to stay. We’re able to be a support to the rest of the artists.” It’s Janke’s fervent hope that by the time Project Storefronts’ rent-free term is up, The Grove will be successful enough to continue. “When we heard about Project Storefronts, we were the first ones to get our business plan in. We were pretty set to deliver.”
The same but different
A lot has changed in the Ninth Square since Bodell was last rebranding storefronts in the late 1980s. Back then, the neighborhood seemed the very definition of urban blight, only to have its condition worsened when the city exhorted the few remaining businesses there to move out so that a planned “walking mall” could take over.
The mall never happened and the neighborhood lay dormant, except for a few hardy settlers such as Art in Heaven, Café Nine and The Grotto (the legendary local punk club that is now the site of Gotham Citi). If there wasn’t space to hang your work, nobody minded if you splattered a boarded-up wall across the street. “There wasn’t a neighboring business that wasn’t an old man’s bar,” Bodell recalls. These days, emptiness is once again a problem, but blight no longer is. Most of the vacant spaces in the area have been only recently vacated by victims of the recession.
As Bodell puts it, she “grew a community.” But again, there are cultural differences that demonstrate how different New Haven is today. Whereas the Art in Heaven gallery was a truly independent, alternative space, lauded by the likes of the Advocate, but overlooked by the mainstream arts network, Project Storefronts has the full blessing of City Hall, not to mention its upscale landlords. It’s been embraced by the other businesses on the block — Nebyat Shewaye, owner of Woodland Coffee & Tea, says he’s noticed increased foot traffic on the street due to the new shops. The reigning arts institution on Orange and Crown, Artspace, has also welcomed the new neighbors, and both Bodell and Artspace director Helen Kauder hint at the prospect for some artistic collaborations.
So who’s minding the stores? To get an inaugural space at Project Storefronts, you had to make a formal application. Since the program was begun before available space could be found to house it, a number of promising applicants had to withdraw, because of more pressing commitments. The first blush of storefronts are the “curated bookstore” Detritus; CSP, a gallery of affordable art; Upcycle Arts; and The Grove. A couple of weekends ago, when Project Storefronts held a big party to augment the celebration of Open Studios at Artspace several other small art projects materialized for the occasion. One was an agricultural/architectural combo; another a colorful display by Bridgeport artist Khyal Braun.
It’s a hardy mix, astonishingly free of that diva-like artist stereotype that prizes art above practicality and feels entitled to overwhelm or underexplain based on personal whims. The pioneering Project Storefronts stores are user-friendly, accessible and open. All are aesthetically inclined shopkeepers who seem serious about running their spaces professionally. They seem to get along, too, and celebrations that are planned for a single store tend to encompass the whole complex.
Margaret Bodell fondly remembers her days at Art in Heaven, not as a personal accomplishment but a communal one. “We brought the underground above ground. I see the same kind of community happening here, except it’s multi-generational now — people of all ages interested.”
While she of course hopes that all the individual entities of Project Storefronts succeed on their own terms (based on whatever their definitions of success might be), the community angle remains foremost in her managerial mind. She’s delighted to provide a weekly gathering space for members of Elm City Handmade, part of the national Etsy Street Team handcraft phenomenon: “Handcrafters don’t want to go to a bar in order to hang out together — they want to come somewhere they can just knit.” There is an on-site loom, weaving materials and an area designated for silkscreening. There are several such common spaces where receptions can be held and where store-owners can share what they’ve learned with each other.
“It’s an endless amount of space,” Bodell says. “Usually,” she concedes, storefront art projects amount to simply “art in the window. This is full-on. This city is taking a leap.”
It took a year, and a couple of false starts in other neighborhoods, for the project to come to fruition. The old United Way offices on Orange had been vacant six months when Bodell began the transformation. She was helped immeasurably by the landlords — “we needed a lot of keys and services to get started up,” Bodell gushes. “A lot of landlords would be difficult, but here, open arms!”
For her part, Bodell has put all her other consulting jobs on hold so she can show up at Project Storefronts every day. Once it kicked in, Bodell was able to insist on professionalism: “Having sat in galleries for 20 years, I know what the importance of that front window is.” So far, everything’s proceeding according to plan, but overnight success brings its own new challenges. “If we’re able to renew [the Orange Street location], we’ll have to get even more serious — negotiate an extended lease, join the Chamber of Commerce. We may have to work out separate contracts with the tenants. People can be hard-nosed about commercial space.” Especially with all the publicity the project’s been getting, there are hordes of new applicants to consider.
“I love what we’ve started to create.”
Barbara Lamb, director of the City of New Haven’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, seems overjoyed with the reaction. Her commitment was financially limited — the $500 start-up costs for each storefront came from Economic Development, not her office. But in other aspects, Lamb’s a key player. She signed the lease for the Orange Street space. She helped get a grant from the Economic Development Commission, knowing it would respond to ideas which sought, in her words, “to energize downtown.” She consulted with other administrators who’d developed arts/business blends, such as Craftland in Providence. “The entrepreneur part was always part of this. I think galleries are wonderful, but this is not about doing more galleries.”
Location, location, location. This isn’t ephemeral art or found art or environmental art. To Margaret Bodell, this is a new form of artistic community. To Barbara Lamb, this is “a street presence” for her oft-misunderstood City Hall office, one which directly serves New Haven artists and windowshopping Ninth Square wanderers alike.