When Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A. graduated from Yale, like many art school graduates, he moved to New York City. But he says he spent a lot of time thinking about the city of New Haven — a city that was affordable, with a vibrant culture, and the possibility to build something big. He’s now living a few blocks from a 40,000-square-foot former manufacturing facility in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood that he and a dedicated team are transforming into an $8 million to $10-million multi-use artists’ complex called NXTHVN with the help of city, state, and private funding.
As this vision has taken shape, Kaphar has enlisted allies like co-founder Jonathan Brand ’07 M.F.A. (whom he also coaxed from New York City), private equity analyst Jason Price, art and business consultant Carrie Mackin, and Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, whose firm is leading NXTHVN’s design. “My architecture has always been surrounded by artists,” Berke says. “I don’t see hard lines between performing arts, visual arts, and design. We connected on that.”
Kaphar was recently named one of 25 MacArthur Fellows for his artwork challenging racism in the Western canon. (He was among five Yale alumni to win the prestigious prize this year.) But on this day, leading a press tour of the complex for local media and city officials, he was focused on NXTHVN, a place that he intends to be “a beacon in our neighborhood.” He spoke of building a world-class facility that would allow the surrounding community a place to directly engage with art and artists — to develop their own talents, work as apprentices, and even have easy access to fresh food. To that end, the facility will have a café and invite top graduates from the Connecticut Center for the Arts and Technology’s Culinary Arts Academy to run it. There will also be co-working space that makes use of natural lighting and welcomes artists of all kinds, which will be available at a discount to those in the neighborhood. Outside the facility, workers were digging out a space that will become NXTHVN’s 70- to 80-seat black-box theater, a venue to showcase and inspire performing artists, and to which leading choreographer Bill T. Jones contributed ideas. Other features of NXTHVN include 15 professional artists’ studios with skylights and temperature control, and four artists-in-residence apartments. NXTHVN’s artist studios will be open in January 2019, with other building elements to follow.
“We are not building this from scratch,” Kaphar told the assembled group. “This is a strong community in the arts. We are building on that strong foundation.”
Kaphar retains a strong connection to Yale and says NXTHVN will give up-and-coming artists who attend Yale School of Art a reason to stay in New Haven. “While prices are going up in New York, we’re still an affordable city,” he says. “Artists can consider this neighborhood as a place to begin their practice.”
He spoke of his own late introduction to art in his 20s. “I had a high school GPA of .65, I decided I was going to fail. When I found art, it opened up a world of opportunities I didn’t know existed.” He has since won numerous awards in addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, including a 2016 Robert R. Rauschenberg Artist as Activist grant and the 2018 Rappaport Prize. He’s given a TED Talk in which he completed a painting onstage, and his work has been shown at museums across the country including the Seattle Art Museum, MoMA PS1, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. His current exhibition, “Unseen: Our Past in a New Light,” which sheds light on the contributions of people of color in America’s history, can be seen at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
New Haven Mayor Toni Harp ’78 M.E.D. noted that NXTHVN is about transformation. “In a city as old as New Haven, the ability to recycle and reclaim space is paramount,” she says. She spoke of the “collective talent and creative energy” of New Haven’s residents, adding: “The goal is the creation of sustainable creative workspace … to accelerate the careers of emerging and professional artists.”
Kaphar says he is particularly excited about NXTHVN’s mentorship program, which will provide an opportunity for young artists from nearby Hillhouse High School to work as paid apprentices with professional artists and learn firsthand about the many job possibilities in the arts.
“This is about bringing opportunities to the neighborhood,” Kaphar said, “providing amazing things for people who deserve amazing things.”