Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Interview with Helen Kauder

Helen Kauder is leaving Artspace after ten years at the helm. But Artspace is not leaving the corner of Crown and Orange streets. I spoke with Kauder last Wednesday at Artspace.

Amid the uncertainty—which has its creative possibilities—Kauder informed me of a point of continuity.

"Literally, earlier this afternoon, we put ink down on a three-year extension of our lease," she said. "The city will be helping us with it and we will be turning to the community for help with it because it will require a bigger financial commitment from Artspace."

Kauder is leaving to become Deputy Director of the respected Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, where she will officially start in the middle of July. She will be responsible for the day to day running of the contemporary art haven. Kauder was attracted to the Aldrich by her respect for the leadership and vision of museum director Harry Philbrick. It helped, also, that the Aldrich is a well-endowed art institution. While money always needs to be raised, Kauder noted that "there is enough that comes in every year that there is some assurance that the organization will be there and be able to plan far in advance."

The decade-long strain of financing Artspace played a large role in Kauder's decision to move on.

"Raising funds for ten years is hard and because we've grown, it means more mouths to feed. It was getting daunting," Kauder said. "Everybody around here is underpaid, they've put in a number of years, they need raises. How are we going to do that?

"I felt for the first time this year that I'm seeing some clouds on the horizon in terms of corporate sponsors. We've had some cutbacks at a time when we're growing. We're doing more and offering more," she said. "But we're finding the places we're turning to are not growing with us and, in fact, are shrinking."

Kauder offered a few reasons for the retrenchment: that the organization, having established itself, might be taken for granted; that some corporate funders might feel it's somebody else "whose turn it is to help;" that the pending move by Anthem Blue Cross and other corporate belt-tightening locally may mean less corporate support available for a range of community needs.

It particularly impacts Artspace because their funding model depends heavily on corporate and foundation support.

"Because artists tend to be poor, we don't have the built-in source of individual contributors that other non-profits have," said Kauder. But, she added, the good news/bad news aspect of the situation was that "we get small amounts from many places. If someone decides to pull back, it's not a life or death situation. It just makes it harder."

Kauder, and those she has worked with, have achieved a lot over the past ten years. When she took over, Artspace had no home. Before settling into the present location, Artspace took up itinerant residence in a succession of storefronts. The development of the Chamberlain Building space-and Kauder's success in persuading various stakeholders to help make it happen-is a signal achievement.

She recalled the visit of a funder from a New York foundation. "When they saw the space, their jaws dropped. To have this kind of visibility for artists in downtown—there is no other entity in Connecticut that can offer this," Kauder said.

Among the other projects and events Kauder recalled with enthusiasm were the 5th year of Open Studios (this year will be the 10th) at the Pirelli Building and the Factory Direct residencies. The 5th City-Wide Open Studios was, Kauder said, the first time that National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, grant money was secured to fund local artist projects through Artspace. CWOS reached a new level of audience that year. According to Kauder, someone remarked to her at the time that there were "as many cars parked around the Pirelli Building as at a football game."

For Factory Direct, also funded by the NEA, 13 artists were in residency at various venerable New Haven manufacturers. They created works using the materials, technology and history of the companies and through the interaction with the employees.

"It really showed a spirit of innovation and how, in the vein of opening doors we didn't even know existed, we could find new ways to make art happen," said Kauder.

She similarly mentioned the Backpack Project. Transparent backpacks—a symbol of a security-obsessed society—were distributed to be used as vessels to hold art. The community was invited to participate.

"The audience becomes the artist," Kauder said of the project. "People come together and feel connected as a community through artistic endeavors."

Her chief regret was not seeing plans for artist live/work housing in the downtown district come to fruition.

Kauder credited the community of artists for the successes Artspace has enjoyed over the past decade. The artists who have participated in CWOS. The artists who took up the challenge of producing site-specific works. In a number of cases, artists have turned these opportunities into stepping-stones, a way to get their work known more widely, and into venues such as Real Art Ways in Hartford, the Aldrich, and out of state spaces.

"When I think of Artspace's role, it's that we provided a platform. But artists have been willing to come and be on that platform," Kauder explained. And in that relationship, the "platform has been strengthened."

Kauder noted that if Artspace's residency in the Ninth Square were to be left solely to market forces, the organzation would be forced out.

"I hope the city will see that it needs to carve out that room. I hope there is forward thinking and the recognition that the arts tend to require some subsidies," Kauder said. "Artists will never be the top best use in pure economic terms. On the other hand, I think we generate a lot of visitation, a lot of traffic. A lot of people know New Haven, and this area, because of the large number of artists. So much of it is improved image, perception—Ninth Square as being lively, vibrant, of this area as being a great place for artists."

Notwithstanding the financial clouds, Kauder is optimistic for Artspace's future. The extension of the lease provides some breathing room for an incoming director. The board has a new chairman, Rob Narracci. Kauder noted the upside of the fact that talented curator Denise Markonish is leaving at the same time: "It gives the succeeding leadership wide latitude to build their team, a wonderfully clean slate on which to write the next chapter."

There is a year of projects "already cooking," according to Kauder, and they are putting together a team of volunteers-artists and board members-to plan for this fall's CWOS 10th anniversary. Artspace is conducting a national search for a new director, as well as advertising locally.

"I think back to when I got here. Some people then were ready to write Artspace off," Kauder told me. "There was the opportunity for new ideas and things that hadn't been done before.

"There are challenges here but if the past is any guide, somebody with fresh ideas will see possibilities where the current crew didn't, and open doors we didn't know existed," Kauder said. "It's always the possibility with change."


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