October 5, 2018

Creative team debuts Dixwell arts center

Liese Klein
Liese Klein
Titus Kaphar shows New Haven Mayor Toni Harp the site of an under-construction theater at NXTHVN.
An artist's rendering of the co-working space and gallery at the NXTHVN development.

Designed to sit at the nexus of art and business, the under-construction NXTHVN development at 169 Henry St. is set to emerge as hub for innovative thinking in New Haven's Dixwell neighborhood, according to Titus Kaphar, developer, rising artist and – as of Thursday – brand-new MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner.

Kaphar led a tour of city and state officials and reporters around the active construction site on Wednesday to announce the ambitious plans for the project. Kaphar and Jonathan Brand, both Yale School of Art graduates and professional artists, have spearheaded the renovation of the former Macalaster Bicknell factory and surrounding buildings along with Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke.

The developers are aiming to have the artist studios ready by January, with the total project cost coming in at $8 million-$10 million. City, state and philanthropic funds are paying for the work: gut renovation of decades-old buildings and new construction of structures including a underground "black-box theater" performance space, first suggested by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Among the other amenities promised by the project: an expansive co-working space that moonlights as an art gallery, top-of-the-line professional artist studios, artist apartments and an on-site cafe.

"We are so excited about this. The ability to recycle and reclaim precious space is paramount," said Mayor Toni Harp. "Artists are small-business people that grow the environment and economic development of the community."

Architect Berke and her firm designed the project to re-use structural elements where possible and take advantage of the high ceilings and expansive spaces inside the existing buildings.

NXTHVN's concept has already caught on in one sense: More than 160 artists from across the world applied to occupy the six studio spaces now under construction at the project, Kaphar said.

Where the business of art comes in at NXTHVN is a mentorship program in which experienced artists guide new graduates in the art of making a living from their work. Those recent grads will in turn employ students from nearby Hillhouse High School to earn both salaries and art experience.

Hillhouse and the surrounding Dixwell community are ideal for the project, Kaphar added. "This neighborhood… this is exactly where we want to see this happen," Kaphar said. "This is about bringing opportunities to the neighborhood, not about pushing out people who are here," he added.

Brand and Kaphar emphasized that moving to New Haven after graduating from art school helped them establish themselves as professionals. Brand lives in East Rock and Kaphar lives only a few blocks from the NXTHVN site in Dixwell. "People are not afraid of New Haven. People are interested in being in this place," Kaphar said.

Kaphar's bet on New Haven paid off big-time on Thursday with his win of the MacArthur Fellowship. He was recognized for "highlighting the lack of representation of people of color in the canon of Western art with works that deconstruct the literal and visual structure of the artwork," the MacArthur announcement said. The grant consists of no-strings-attached award of $625,000 to encourage further creativity.

Contact Liese Klein at lklein@newhavenbiz.com

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