Laundromats: New Haven’s Next Museums?

Lucy Gellman Photo Artist Titus Kaphar has an idea for New Haven’s next artistic venture: laundromats.

No really, laundromats. With art on the walls, engaging patrons as they cue up for another spin cycle.

Inspired partly by The Laundromat Project and partly by his own experience on the periphery of art museums, the New Haven based artist presented that idea Tuesday afternoon at the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL). He and around 20 others met there for a Connecticut “Office of the Arts Roundtable Discussion” hosted by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

Focused specifically on the department’s READI (relevance, equity, accessibility, diversity and inclusion) initiative, the roundtable marked the first of three sessions exploring diversity, workplace development, and trauma and healing in the arts. All three, which will take place across the state this year, are funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).

Huddling together as the snow fell outside, attendees focused on where they saw inequity playing out in their workplaces, attempting to provide realistic and timely solutions. Facilitator Linda Yancey pushed the group for implementable ideas for making the arts more accessible. 

Enter laundromats. Kaphar’s suggestion — met with a smattering of laughter, and then unanimous approval and enthusiasm at the end of the day — provided a glimpse into the few low-cost, concrete, and readily/READIly implementable solutions that the afternoon produced. Urging fellow attendees to look into The Laundromat Project, which places community artists and educators in laundromats in New York, Kaphar explained how he envisions the program evolving in Connecticut.

“I’m thinking about all of the places that art could be,” he said. “We really need to think about the places that exist in our community that we don’t think of as artistic spaces, as for the arts.”

Laundromats were some of the first among them. For him, it’s a nod to both his approach — heavy on community engagement — and upbringing. Growing up, Kaphar’s mom had three jobs, and little time to ferry him to art museums and cultural venues in his native Michigan. The family also didn’t have a washer or dryer in its home. So as a boy, he ended up spending a lot of time in laundromats. They were, he discovered, pretty boring places.

If they had been teeming with art—and art made by people in his community especially—the experience could have been transformative and magical, he said. 

Attendees jumped on the idea, citing examples that could work in Connecticut. Smith floated a community-oriented ArtMobile similar to Boston’s “Studio on Wheels,” filled with making materials, artists’ tools, and a resident artist to give lessons and demonstrations. Taking a page from controversial Metropolitan Opera Director Peter Geld, Adams asked what it would take for arts institutions—and churches, and schools—to partner with the Met and screen performances for free.  Office of the Arts Director of Culture Kristina Newman-Scott suggested that artists partner with barbershops and nail salons in their neighborhood, much like New York’s Barbershop Books initiative already has.

Others tried to envision accessibility on a more civic level. Arts in Public Spaces Program Specialist Tamara Dimitri suggested a program placing artists in water treatment plants. Brian Cyr, director of instrumental music for the Meridan Public Schools, went a step further.

“What about the DMV?” tossed out Cyr. “Nobody wants to go there.”

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posted by: Bill Saunders on February 1, 2017  3:46pm

Get the art out of the galleries and share it with The People!!!!

I think this is potentially a great idea—
Keep it low-key, artist-oriented, from the neighborhood, and keep the City of New Haven and any of the Art Culture Vultures out of it.  There are a lot of opportunists looking for places to show.

The New Haven Art Establishment has proven their ineffectiveness and lack of ingenuity over and over and over again.  The minute their are ‘paid players’ in the game credibility is lost with the target audience.

This Project costs nothing to do except the right spirit. 

Keep it Real, Titus Kaphar, and you have my unwavering support!

posted by: RobotShlomo on February 1, 2017  5:58pm

I have a better idea. Okay, check this out;

Instead of putting art into laundromats, put BARS in laundromats!! Do some laundry, and then kick back with a beer and wait out your delicates.

You can thank me later.

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 2, 2017  3:57am

Schlomo,

That’s an old idea pioneered in Cinncinatti, OH in a place called Sudsy Malone’s.  Beer, Laundry, Rock n Roll.

They lasted for almost twenty years, starting in the late ‘80’s.

RIP

posted by: RobotShlomo on February 2, 2017  11:04am

Bill Saunders,

I’m thinking of that scene now in Night Shift where Michael Keaton says “I invented them, but they already had them”.

Okay, seriously now. Here’s what the inherent problem with going to the laundromat. It’s not a pleasant experience. It’s tedious. It’s mundane. The people there don’t want to be there. And it’s utilitarian. Putting art on the walls doesn’t really make the experience any better, especially now when everyone just stares at their phones, watch Breaking Bad on Netflix anyway.

Why hasn’t anyone considered setting up tents on the Green, and putting displays there for a few days over the summer?

posted by: LookOut on February 2, 2017  11:54am

RobotShlomo - I thought I had that idea as well….I wanted to call it Suds n Suds.

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 2, 2017  3:17pm

Schlomo,

I think projects like this work when they evolve from grassroots efforts and directly involve the community at hand.

I did a little research about the artist to see what I could find, and I was surprised.

Mr. Kaphar was named Time person of the year in 2014 for a protest piece regarding Ferguson, he has work in the Yale art gallery, and is a 2006 graduate of Yale—I find all of that information an interesting omission from this article, and makes me think that this is less of a grassroots effort than at first it might have appeared…

I am also curious as to why there isn’t already a pilot location—this is such a simple project to implement. 

Actions speak louder than words….don’t advertise intent, let intent drive…....

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 2, 2017  3:52pm

Alright Schlomo, let’s get back to talking about community art….

Your notion that ‘putting art on the walls doesn’t make the experience better, ’ is uninformed and dismissive.

Some of the realest art shows I have put on have involved unlikely community spaces….

For Example, last October I did guerrilla exhibit at the bus stop on lower Chapel Street to raise awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  The exhibit consisted of 5 large and 36 small paintings featuring well-endowed women in various states of undress.  We hung the large paintings on the blue fence, and the small painting in the bus stop itself, we had some informative literature, pink balloons and a pink ribbon….

then me and my lesbian friend waited to see what happened…

First we met a young black college student who was going to Gateway, and she expressed interest in art and activism, and we had a healthy, lively conversation.

A grandmother with three children stopped, looked at the art, and disclosed that the mother of the children was currently undergoing breast cancer treatment.

A Sikh women in full garb carefully looked at each piece of art, then turned to me, putting her hands on her chest, saying ‘It is about this, right’.

The reactions from the men were the best, walking in pairs, one would get upset and the other would say ‘No, man—its for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s cool’. Others would cagily take selfies standing in front of paintings.
Others would stop and disclose - My Mother had it, my sister had it, my aunt had it…....

Busloads of people took pictures

A guy from CT Transit showed up, said he heard there were complaints about ‘titty paintings’ at the Bus Stop, then immediately said, ‘Aw man, I’m gonna call ‘em up and tell ‘em they got it ALL WRONG’.

The support from the community and the interactions blew my mind all day…. The show lasted three hours.

So, that is my little attempt to prove that the Social Value of Art, is more than you might think….

posted by: SLP on February 3, 2017  11:28pm

SuperSaver laundromat in New Haven tried sponsoring a scholarship in 2014 to encourage New Haven high school students to create art to be displayed in its laundromat(s). Not sure what happened with that but someone should include them in the discussion—they’ve shown interest in the concept!