If you’ve ever noticed pictures of municipal views by contemporary artists along the stairways of the main library, or seen a movie about New Haven’s great age of jazz, thank Frank Mitchell.
On Friday, New Haven’s arts community thanked Mitchell and other unsung cultural movers and shakers.
The thanking took place at the 29th annual Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s awards lunch.
More than 250 people gathered at the Lawn Club to hail curator and writer Mitchell (pictured with Yale Drama School’s Victoria Nolan) and four other awardees as “enduring spirits”: Dancer, choreographer, and teacher Pedro Alejandro; Betsy Ross Magnet School arts coordinator Sylvia Petriccione; sculptor William Kent, who is 90; and the Shubert Theater, which turns 95 next week.
Jean Handley, co-founder of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, received the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Click the Arts Council site for photos of all the awardees and their brief artistic profiles.
Handley (in the chair, with Arts Council’s Barbara Feldman) was introduced as embodying the spirit of the late C. Newton Schenck III, a moving force behind the Audubon arts district. Schenck’s wife Anne rose and said, “Newt didn’t do it alone.”
That was the point.
Frank Mitchell’s work includes Unsung Heroes, a movie about New Haven’s great age of jazz; African Americans in Connecticut: Civil War to Civil Rights; and many curatorial projects with the Amistad Center in Hartford on the material and artistic culture of African-Americans, the latest being an exhibition and book, Soul Food.
In all these efforts Mitchell describes himself as one voice of many in a conversation; or as a collaborator, a “co”-creator with Jazz Haven on the jazz film; a writer with filmmaker Karyl Evans on the history film.
“Many of these projects would have happened regardless, but someone was needed to take that extra step,” he said after the ceremonies.
So many times, that someone turned out to be Mitchell.
“He’s a gentle mover,” said Kathy Hurley with whom Mitchell collaborated in curating the city’s municipal art collection of New Haven views at the main library. “He has a way of motivating people with his own humility that makes them want to get involved even more.”
The other qualities cited most about Mitchell, a sense of inclusiveness and listening deeply, were echoed by Handley as essential to collaboration: “Listening and responding and [having] a sincere desire to welcome as many people as possible into the arts experience.”
Not all the awardees in the 2009 pantheon fit that bill. Sculptor and printmaker William Kent worked as a curator for years at the John Slade Ely House. However, he said with curmudgeonly candor, “I never work with other people, except back in the 1930s, with some Yale students. Most artists work by themselves.”
Unlike Alejandro and Petriccione, who teach respectively at Wesleyan University and in the New Haven public schools, Kent said, “I never thought of teaching. Artists have to work out problems for themselves.”
That’s so, but there’s no rule that says people can’t do both, fulfill a creative vision of their own and also help others along their paths as well. It was that generosity that received pride of place at Friday’s event.
Mitchell’s newest project will be an exhibition on the critical role artists can play in the post-Katrina revival of New Orleans.
Arts Council Executive Director Cynthia Clair (pictured with William Kent) said that despite the tough economic times, attendance as well as income (around $15,000) at this year’s event were on a par with last year’s.
Recipients of the awards were chosen from a field of 68 submitted by the community at large; selection was by a community jury of five. Full disclosure: This reporter was on the 2009 jury.