On a recent evening in the New Haven, Conn., Dixwell neighborhood, artists, students, academics and locals gathered in a large, state-of-the-art event space for a conversation with the photographer Dawoud Bey, 69, who is known for chronicling unseen facets of the Black experience in America. Using thoughtful, precise words, Bey — who has a rare command of language — described the ways in which a long tradition of Black cultural production informs his work.
As the audience took in Bey’s resonant images of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the flight routes of enslaved African Americans in Ohio — among the historic sites the artist has reimagined in his work — the event’s venue was significant in more than one way. The talk was organized by NXTHVN, a fellowship program and arts center co-founded in 2019 by the artist Titus Kaphar, 46. Its heart is made up of two once-derelict low-slung brick buildings — one used to be an ice cream factory, and the other a facility that made laboratory glassware — that the architect (and Yale School of Architecture dean) Deborah Berke has converted into an efficient, luminous compound containing artist studios, production facilities, a gallery, a cafe and a black box theater that’s still under construction.
An exchange between an eminent photographer and a budding generation of artists wouldn’t be unusual on the other side of Prospect Street, the thoroughfare that separates the historically Black areas of Dixwell and Dwight from the affluent grounds of Yale University, which, for better or worse, dominates the public perception and self-image of New Haven. At once walking distance and worlds removed from Yale’s lawns and turrets, Dixwell has been largely left out of any meaningful urban planning efforts since it was redlined in the 1930s and a failed renewal attempt in the 1960s diminished any hopes the neighborhood would ever thrive again. Today, a staggering picture of inequality is the legacy of the area’s sustained discrimination: There is an almost 10-year difference in life expectancy between Dixwell and Prospect Hill — an adjacent neighborhood that is effectively part of the Yale campus — while the median income of a white person from Prospect Hill is nearly three times that of a Black Dixwell resident raised in the area. But even though on many corners Dixwell projects the malaise of a district neglected by the prosperity on its doorstep (for perspective, last fall Yale University reported an endowment of $42.3 billion), it also preserves the air of a significant, if dormant, cultural heritage.
For a few decades from the 1920s, Dixwell was an epicenter of jazz, following an influx of Black families lured from the South by New Haven’s manufacturing jobs. Catering to a robust working class, local clubs like the Monterey became an obligatory stop for performers including John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. But the social upheaval following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and nationwide deindustrialization of cities in the late ’60s brought an end to that boom. Dixwell had been steadily declining for years when, in 2006, the Winchester Repeating Arms factory — the maker of John Wayne’s rifles — announced it was closing, erasing the last stronghold of New Haven’s identity (and one of its main employers) independent of Yale.
Little of New Haven’s cultural buoyancy was left by the time Bey passed through the city as one of the first Black students in the Yale M.F.A. photography program in the early 1990s. Back then, “Staying in New Haven, for one who was an ambitious artist, was definitely not an option,” he recalls. “The kind of vibrancy needed to thrive as an artist just didn’t seem to be there. I don’t think there was a considerable infrastructure of support for an art community at that time. The focus of the M.F.A. program seemed to be ‘graduate and move to New York to begin your career.’”
That is what Kaphar did. After graduating from the Yale School of Art in 2006, he moved to New York, where he planted the seeds for what has been a remarkable trajectory (Kaphar’s work, which subverts pictorial tropes to redress the racial exclusions pervasive in Western art, is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among other museums, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in June 2020). But in 2009, he moved back to New Haven, specifically to Dixwell, where he found a community that welcomed him and a city that was conducive to producing art. It was not long after that he began to envision creating NXTHVN.
As the artist effectively took on the mantle of a developer — which some might see as an inherent contradiction — Kaphar teamed up with the finance and real estate specialist Jason Price, 49, who is based in New Haven. The pair deliberately chose to open NXTHVN in Dixwell, as a counterweight to Yale’s dominance, one that would engage the local community in a way the elite institution has failed to do. Among other initiatives to boost the neighborhood, NXTHVN employs local high school students as paid apprentices and, during the pandemic, the center hosted pop-up vaccine clinics and helped organize a food drive to collect groceries for local families.
Kaphar and Price knew importing what can be seen as premium commodities — high-end art and architecture, for starters — might alienate residents of a disenfranchised area that has long contended with encroaching richer interests and, Price admits, their venture has been faced with some skepticism by the local community. As a result, NXTHVN has had to redouble its efforts to convey that its intention, as much as it is to create a nationally renowned residency program and working investment model, is to benefit and include the vicinity. Unsurprisingly, this has involved making it clear that NXTHVN isn’t a Yale initiative.
Arrive in New Haven on any given day by train, as many visitors do, and it doesn’t feel like an artist’s magnet. Yale University’s neo-Gothic bastions, designed to project permanence and high-minded authority, take up large swaths of the city’s center, buffered by affable blocks lined with bookstores, bars and shops. Though most of the grand elm trees that Charles Dickens admired and that were the inspiration for the city’s nickname are long gone, a sense of gilded ordinariness remains. That is until, abruptly, the quaintness gives way to a more eclectic quilt of neighborhoods that could be any postindustrial city of the American Northeast.
And yet, in recent years, a community of artists — including many of color — has blossomed in these unassuming districts with names like East Rock, Newhallville and Fair Haven. Most are Yale alumni who chose to stay and base their practice in New Haven after completing the Yale School of Art’s famously rigorous M.F.A. program.
New Haven’s appeal over larger cities may not be self-evident, but it makes sense. Midway between Boston and New York, the city is an easy two-hour train ride from Grand Central Terminal. An old port with a layered history and resulting diversity, New Haven doesn’t lack in infrastructure and prides itself on its decent dining scene, while Connecticut’s hiking trails are a bike ride away. Then there’s the Ivy League school in its center, with which the city has always had a fraught relation. Its presence is both a point of pride and an exasperation for New Haven residents, who point to bitter labor disputes as evidence that, for the first three centuries of its existence, the lofty institution effectively ignored the needs of the community that hosts it. Then again, thanks to the university’s claim to excellence, a city with a population of roughly 130,000 includes both a world-class art museum and a theater scene on whose stages actors are known to perform before becoming huge stars.
New Haven is also many times cheaper than what used to be the only viable option for M.F.A. graduates serious about their careers: moving to New York. For Dominic Chambers, a 29-year-old painter from St. Louis, the decision was clear when he graduated from Yale in 2019. “I thought, ‘I need to make work, not worry about rent, or whether I’m producing enough, or if it is going to sell.’ For me, it was purely practical and about freedom.” It seems to be paying off — Chambers recently became the youngest artist to have a solo show at Lehmann Maupin gallery in Manhattan.
After seeing an Instagram post by fellow artist Rebecca Ness about her spacious, affordable studio in Erector Square — a former toy factory housing 148 artist studios — Chambers reached out to the landlord immediately. He now rents 1,800 square feet for a small fraction of what the same kind of space would cost in Brooklyn. Chambers sees New Haven as an extended but temporary base, “I don’t plan on staying here,” he says. “This is a great but transient, liminal space for me.” Other artists have become more invested in this city, as is the case with Kaphar, but there is a growing community of well-known artists who have made a home here.
Visiting Tschabalala Self’s studio on Shelton Avenue can seem, at first, slightly forbidding in comparison to NXTHVN’s contemporary airiness and inviting glass lobby only a few blocks away. But once one gets through the secured doors, an eerie hallway and the freight elevator, it’s easy to see why the artist likes to express an unwavering fondness for New Haven.
“I don’t think I would have been able to build my career anywhere else as well as I was able to here,” she says, “I’ve been taken care of by this city — it allowed me to find affordable housing and an affordable studio.” Self occupies several big rooms on an upper floor of a hulking structure that also nods to New Haven’s manufacturing past, a former Winchester factory built in 1915. Self initially came to New Haven for Yale’s M.F.A. program in 2013 and has kept her studio in New Haven since she graduated. It is here that she creates the ravishing large-format works — combining painting and printmaking with sewn fabric, and drawing from an array of art historical and craft traditions — that have earned her an international following.
Self also spends a lot of time in the Hudson Valley, another popular refuge for artists looking to eschew New York City. But she prefers New Haven. It affords professional artists practical advantages over other towns outside of the metropolitan area. “You need UPS and FedEx, as well as a good highway to move your work,” she says. “You can’t take a box truck on the Taconic,” which connects the Hudson Valley to the city, “but you can on I-95,” the freeway that passes by New Haven. “New Haven didn’t seem that dissimilar from the kind of neighborhood I’m from,” says the 32-year-old, who grew up in Harlem. “It’s like a less urban version of the big city. Some people think New Haven is dangerous, and the socio-economic dynamics make them feel uncomfortable. But I am used to living in an area like that.”
In fact, New Haven’s deeply rooted Black community means “I can get oxtails or have my hair braided if I want,” she says, and makes it an inspiring environment for her art. “Seeing Black bodies in cities and in everyday life is an essential element of my work, and I’ve been able to find it here.” Self also states that while regular contact with curators and writers is crucial to her practice, being in New Haven hasn’t been an impediment for such connections. By the time she graduated in 2015, “it was a different world, thanks to technology, you didn’t have to be in the right place at the right time, chatting up people,” she says, adding, “I always felt it was more important for my work to be in New York than for me to physically be there.” But all compelling reasons to stay notwithstanding, Self would have never landed in New Haven to begin with if it weren’t for the 321-year-old ivory elephant that presides over town.
For a lot of its history, Yale was a segregated campus that catered exclusively to privileged white men. The university didn’t admit a substantial number of Black students until 1964, and did not officially go coed until 1969. The campus has become far more equitable, though with some exceptions, this has only happened since the beginning of the 21st century. “I wanted to go to Yale because all my favorite artists, when I was younger, had gone to Yale,” Self says. “I thought, ‘If I can go there, maybe I can have the kind of career they have had.’ It was knowing Kehinde Wiley went here, Mickalene Thomas went here, Wangechi Mutu went here — artists who were heroes to me in high school and college.” A growing number of names could be added to Self’s list, as the Yale School of Arts has arguably become the country’s most formidable fulcrum of artistic talent, notably Black talent. Besides the more established figures Self mentions, the rise — in the last 10 years or so — of a newer guard of artists that includes Jordan Casteel, Lauren Halsey, Jennifer Packer and Awol Erizku makes it hard to overstate the impact the school’s M.F.A. program has had in art, a prominence similar to prior concentrated moments when a contained educational entity produced an unusual flourishing of exceptional talent. Black Mountain College enjoyed such a mythical streak before closing in 1956, CalArts in the 1970s. Yale’s art school is witnessing its own period as a hotbed of excellence. What makes it all the more remarkable is that so many of the extraordinary artists Yale has produced in recent years have been artists of color. Equally unexpected is that it would happen at an institution hardly known for its inclusivity.
Summing up his experience at Yale, Bey recalls how, 30 years ago, students of color were woefully underrepresented in the M.F.A. program. “By the time I applied to Yale in 1991, an advanced degree had become necessary for professional advancement as an artist,” he says. “I knew that several Black artists I respected, including Martin Puryear, Howardena Pindell and William T. Williams, had come out of Yale’s M.F.A. program. They were all rigorous in the making of their work, and seemed to work consistently. Yale was steeped in the modernist notion that the discourse begins with the made object, which was consistent with my own thinking … It was a very conservative program — one was expected to make a lot of work, and ‘think by making’; all conversations were about the work’s proficiency and effectiveness. As far as I know, there had only been two other Black M.F.A. photography students before me, Williams — who graduated in 1968 — and Tyrone Georgiou, 1972. There was one Black M.F.A. student in the painting program while I was there, and I knew one Black woman in the graphic design program.”
Things were slow to change, and they still aren’t perfect. Self recalls that, as recently as 2013, when she attended Yale, “the M.F.A. program was really fantastic at making people figure out how to improve their work formally and challenge its ideas, and for the two to be aligned.” But her class, she notes, “was certainly not reflective of the population” outside of the school’s walls. “For a long time, it seemed every year there were only four Black students in the painting department, two male and two female. It made you wonder if there was something behind that curiously fixed number.”
Yale’s lateness to fully integrate and take Black art seriously is especially jarring in light of New Haven’s role as a focal point in a centuries-old progressive fight for racial justice. “Bizarre historical things have happened here,” Self says. The African captives accused of mutiny on the Amistad slave ship were imprisoned in New Haven, and their trial took place in nearby Hartford. Self’s studio is a 25-minute walk from the address in Dwight that housed the New Haven chapter of the Black Panthers, which earned national attention when its founder, Ericka Huggins, along with the party’s chairman, Bobby Seale, were prosecuted in a politically motivated murder case in 1970. “It’s fascinating to me to see contemporary New Haven, which remains a very Black city, through the lens of the two major trials that happened here, one in the 19th century, the other more recently, that were seminal for abolitionism and the struggle against oppression.”
Dr. Kymberly Pinder, 57, who in 2021 became the first Black woman to be named dean of the Yale School of Arts, recognizes the institution’s ignominious record on racial equity prior to its course correction in the new millennium, and points out that the problem extended to faculty (according to Pinder, until 1987, the painter Robert Reed was the only tenured professor of color at the school). Among other factors, Pinder credits the school’s emergence as a leading educator of Black artists to actions taken by her predecessors over the years — the art historian Robert Storr, in particular — including amending the admissions process to make it more inclusive. Yet, she inherits an unfinished project that has been gradual. “It wasn’t one silver bullet. It was an ongoing multipronged way in which culture change happened.”
Today, the academy Pinder helms is the most diverse professional school at the university, with over 60 percent of its current M.F.A. classes identifying as persons of color. And if things stay on track, one can only expect to see students from an even wider, more mixed range of backgrounds to come out of the Yale School of Art in years to come. “One of my goals is to increase the endowments we already have, and make the M.F.A. pretty much affordable for anyone who makes it into the program,” she says. Then she adds, “But bringing all these different students into the school doesn’t work if the curriculum stays the same. That’s one of the reasons I’m here, to find ways to make the institution meet all of these increasingly diverse students where they are.” To wit, a recent course program aimed to decolonize art history.
That phrase called to mind a visit to Bhasha Chakrabarti’s studio at the Yale School of Art’s painting department, a stone’s throw away from the Louis Kahn-designed Yale University Art Gallery, where a current exhibition invites viewers to take “A Closer Look” at “Midcentury Abstraction.” Following a quick walk through that show — featuring staid masterpieces by Mark Rothko, John Chamberlain, Willem de Kooning and other canonical names of European descent — it’s jolting to enter Chakrabarti’s space and be surrounded by large canvases with unabashedly lush nudes depicting brown-skinned women.
Chakrabarti, 31, just graduated from the M.F.A. program. She came to New Haven from Delhi after spending her childhood in Hawaii and a post-college stint in New York. Despite her cosmopolitan background, she plans to stay in New Haven after she finishes the program. Like others, she is ambivalent about Yale but finds New Haven to be a nurturing environment for her practice, “I think a lot of people who come through Yale choose to ignore the institution, hoping it won’t affect their work,” she says. “There is a tendency to come, get what you need and leave. But if you actually invest in the history of the place, it becomes really interesting.”
When Covid upended conditions for M.F.A. students (who were shut out of their Yale studios), Chakrabarti took a year off. Living and working in New Haven — in East Rock and Erector Square, respectively — changed her outlook, as well as her work, which began to grapple with the discrepancy of being South Asian and queer in an institution built on placing its own survival above all else. She decided to center her thesis project around the university’s origin, recreating the textiles that were part of a founding gift by the controversial colonial governor and merchant Elihu Yale. Chakrabarti found the looms she needed at Creative Arts Workshops, a nearby community arts center, and used the sewing machines at Make Haven, another local organization that supports artists. “If you want to work hard and be independent in your studio practice, New Haven is the place to do it,” she says. “Beyond Yale, it’s largely immigrant and Black, which makes it especially attractive. Still, having Yale here leads to an interesting, engaged climate and, ironically, a sense of possibility in what can be imagined outside of the institution.”
If Yale is what brings many artists to New Haven, a certain antagonism toward the institution animates their loyalty to the city. A sentiment of existing here both thanks to, in spite of and perhaps as an alternative to Yale mirrors the city’s complex rapport with its illustrious occupant.
When Kaphar arrived at the university in 2004, it no longer was the exclusionary white enclave in a predominantly Black city that it had been for most of its history. But it was still an alienating place for a person of color. As Kaphar, who grew up in Michigan, recalls, “When I was at Yale, I was part of a large institution that is a part of the city. But culturally, it didn’t reflect, in any way, the world I grew up in, so I often felt out of place there. It never felt like home to me.”
His experience of New Haven could not have been more different when he returned a few years after graduating and settled, with his young family, outside of the Yale ecosystem. “That is when we were able to see the city and what it had to offer for the first time. We found a community that did look very similar to the one I grew up in and was willing to bring me in. I fell in love with it,” he says. From 2009, Kaphar lived in Dixwell for a decade. The initial idea for NXTHVN was hatched when he outgrew the garage behind his house that he was using as a studio. Kaphar saw an opportunity in the city’s longstanding dichotomy: on the one hand, a city that, while certainly in need and past its heyday, offered a significant history to build on and favorable conditions to work and raise a family, and on the other, the failure of the university to recognize, leverage and nourish the potential of that environment. “I find it baffling that a university that has pumped out some of the most esteemed artists in generations is only a mile and half from NXTHVN. I was shocked more artists hadn’t decided to stay in this amazing city.”
Kaphar doesn’t begrudge the institution, which provided him with the foundations that enabled his success. “It helped me dig deeper into my practice, the conceptual understanding behind my work.” But one perceived shortcoming of his Yale days became another motivation to open NXTHVN. “I graduated from one of the most important universities for art in the country, and yet I felt I wasn’t prepared when I got out. The M.F.A. program did not equip me to deal with the art world that I was going into.” Convinced young artists interested in a professional career need as much entrepreneurial savvy as formal training, Kaphar decided to create “a space for artists at a certain stage in their practice, ready to advance professionally, in need of mentorship, development and the tools to be empowered with regard to the business of art.”
NXTHVN, as such, isn’t an alternative to an M.F.A. program (the majority of its cohorts already attended an art school, although that isn’t a requirement) but a place where conversations that he wishes had been part of his artistic education — including with lawyers and business experts — take place alongside an intensive studio practice. While Self recalls that during her time at Yale students were encouraged to ignore the market and focus solely on their work, Pinder is trying to round out the M.F.A. program with modules similar to those on NXTHVN’s class schedule, including a financial literacy workshop. “A student should know how to price their work, and I find it is our ethical responsibility to provide these types of skills, too. There’s no reason you can’t perfect your craft and also learn how to be a working artist,” the Yale dean told me.
When artists land in an area, upmarket developers tend not to be far behind, and in cities around the globe, recent history shows artists can be pioneers of gentrification. Their arrival often signifies the death knell of the affordability that drew them to an area in the first place, displacing low-income communities and uprooting the tenuous, fraying fabric of small businesses and social support networks that took decades to build. According to Crystal Gooding, the Dixwell Community Management Team chair, the area’s remaining Black households are being squeezed out from every side, both by developers and private management companies, as well as by Yale, all of which own local real estate. Kaphar is conscious of this. “Look at what happened in parts of Brooklyn and Los Angeles,” he acknowledges. “Of course, people should be distrustful, especially in New Haven where projects start with the idea that they will engage the community and, next thing you know, that same community can’t afford to remain in their homes.”
For now, Kaphar’s personal investment in Dixwell and its people makes it unlikely that NXTHVN might default on its stated promise to have a positive impact on the area. “We are committed to this neighborhood,” he says. “We want to be the kind of place where artists come to make work and feel they have freedom, are supported, and it’s economically viable for them, but it’s equally paramount to us that the people who live here have access to what we are doing. The biggest proof of success is when local folks walk into this building and feel like it’s a place for them.”
Kaphar says artists looking for a scene, in the superficial sense (“the people that would come to your studio just to be nosy and waste your time,” as Self puts it), might come to New Haven and be disappointed. “But if you are an artist who is a maker, are looking for inspiration in an engaged community, and don’t want to be confined by the structures and expenses of New York, then you’re going to think, ‘this is the right moment to be here.’”