State Preservationists Get A Peek At “NXTHVN”

"Why is it that I have to justify the need for the folks in my community to have a space that's comfortable for them? To have a space where they can be creative?" New Haven artist Titus Kaphar asked aloud at Wednesday's State Historic Preservation conference. Deborah Berke Rendering. 

"Why is it that I have to justify the need for the folks in my community to have a space that's comfortable for them? To have a space where they can be creative?" New Haven artist Titus Kaphar asked aloud at Wednesday's State Historic Preservation conference. Deborah Berke Rendering. 

Titus Kaphar kicked off his most recent trip to Hartford with an open invitation: Connecticut preservationists should make a trip to New Haven later this year, to visit his new incubator NXTHVN and see how Dixwell’s artistic past informs its present. And if they like it, they should consider throwing some money that way, too. 

A New Haven artist who recently unveiled work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Kaphar made that invitation Wednesday morning, at the State Historic Preservation Office’s (SHPO) second annual conference in Hartford. Held at the Sheraton Hartford South Hotel, the event brought in 200 preservationists, nonprofit managers, and arts professionals from across the state, including speakers Dar Williams, Madeline Sayet, Natasha Wing and Kaphar. 

“I know we’re in Hartford, I know New Haven might feel far away,” he said, speaking just before lunch. “But I need you to come.”

NXTHVN, formerly known as Elm City Postmasters, is the name of a 40,000 square foot, $5.8 million arts incubator and apprenticeship program Kaphar is building at 169 Henry St., in the heart of the city’s Dixwell neighborhood. The building, with premises that will extend to Dixwell Avenue, has a former life as an industrial warehouse, shipping company, and packaging plant. In 2015, a raid from the New Haven Police and Fire Departments and anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI) revealed an illegal manufacturing operation, after which it stood completely vacant for two years. NXTHVN purchased the building under a limited liability company for $260,000 in May of last year. 

Deborah Berke Rendering. 

Deborah Berke Rendering. 

Earlier this year, the state committed $1.2 million to the project, which has also gained financial support from the United Way of Greater New Haven, City of New Haven, the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), Rauschenberg and RISC Foundations, and the Yale School of Art and Yale University Art Galletu among others.

But NXTHVN is a relatively recent development, Kaphar told the crowd Wednesday. The artist, who lives with his family in the Dixwell neighborhood, didn’t have the project in mind when he first saw the complex. It didn’t have a great rep in the community: after multiple businesses had left it abandoned, “someone was doing some illegal activity in the building … and the folks in our neighborhood started to feel like the city didn’t care that much.”

But then LCI raided the building, and it was truly empty—there were 20,000 unused square feet, in various states of disrepair, waiting for someone to find a use for them. Y=Kaphar was looking for a new studio space, he told the crowd to a smattering of laughs, but didn’t need the building’s sprawling location.

Then he talked to artists in the neighborhood, and community elders who told stories about the long-dead jazz clubs that used to populate Dixwell Avenue. He had a realization: the building could bring some of that old spirit back.  

“This is not starting from scratch,” he said. “This is actually building on the foundation that something exists. This is adaptive reuse. This is taking a building that exists in our community and trying to transform it into something that’s relevant to the people in the neighborhood.”

“It’s not going to look like what it used to look like,” he added. “But this is the sort of adaptive part of it. We change it and make it relevant to the people who are living in that community. We change it to make it more exciting. We change it to draw people in who feel like they need it.”

As he and the NXTHVN team wrap up their inaugural call for applicants this month, they’re working to get the word out: artists will start moving in in September, and the building will open formally with a jazz concert and ribbon cutting in January. On the left side of the building, NXTHVN will house a creative coworking space for “creatives and designers”—architects, graphic designers, writers and artists.

On the other side of the building, Kaphar will have an art gallery where “we want the best of the best,” and studio spaces for resident artists from the community. As part of their residencies, those artists will be working with students from nearby James Hillhouse High School, training them as studio assistants in a tiered apprenticeship program. In the gallery, curators will be doing the same sort of mentorship program.

It's part of what Kaphar sees as a new-old trend, he told the audience—graduate degrees in fine art are becoming so cost-prohibitive that artists are returning to traditional trainings and apprenticeships with senior artists to hone their craft. It's not just what creatives in the Dixwell neighborhood need, he added—it's what they deserve. 

“A lot of times what happens in the community I grew up in, like the one I grew up in, is people don’t give us the best,” he said. “We get these sort of side projects and people meaning well, but I want the very best of the best. The folks who are showing with me at the Smithsonian, I want them there. The folks who are showing with me at MoMA, I want them there. I want them to understand that this is a valuable community that has a lot to give to the artists.”

NXTHVN is set to open in January 2019 with a jazz performance from Wadada Leo Smith. For updates and more information, visit its website. To watch the entire 15 minutes of Kaphar's remarks from Wednesday, click on the video above or visit the Arts Council of Greater New Haven on Facebook