Onstage at Co-op High, all five Democratic mayoral candidates agreed that arts are a key to education and the economy in New Haven—and one pulled out a harmonica to drive the point home.
The harp-wielding candidate was Justin Elicker, who had his rival mayoral candidates clapping and stomping during his musical closing remarks at a Monday night forum on the arts. Click the video to watch.
Elicker and the four other candidates for mayor—Kermit Carolina, Henry Fernandez, Toni Harp, Sundiata Keitazulu—took the stage at Co-op Arts and Humanities High School at the request of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
They took part in a candidate “forum” on the arts. Not billed as a debate per se, it was a conversation about the role of the arts in the city—in schools, in the community, in commerce.
WTNH’s Jocelyn Maminta acted as moderator. She asked candidates prepared questions for an hour, followed by a half hour of questions from the audience.
Each candidate took the opportunity to court the arts community, describing his or her commitment to music and theater and visual arts and all that he or she has done for arts and would do as mayor.
Broad consensus emerged between the candidates on a variety of arts-related topics: Schools should have more arts education. Young people should have more opportunities in and exposure to the arts. The arts are an essential driver in New Haven’s economy and the city should do more to “brand” itself as an artsy place. And the city should support arts in all of its neighborhoods, not just downtown.
The Independent was on hand, live-blogging all the artsy action as it unfolded onstage.
6:53 p.m.: We’re here in the auditorium at Co-op High, where people are filtering in and taking their seats. Keitazulu (pictured) was the first candidate to arrive and is sitting alone onstage.
7:05: About 100 people here, with more streaming in.
7:10: All candidates are now onstage. Keitazulu is holding a pair of wrap-around sunglasses. Harp has a pad with notes.
7:11: And we’re off! Cindy Clair, head of the arts council, makes introductions. Maminta lays out the ground rules: two-minute responses per question, two-minute closing remarks. She introduces the candidates.
7:15: First question, to the entire group. Tell us about your last arts experience and what you got out of it.
Fernandez: My wife and I went to see the play “Stuck Elevator.” I though it did an amazing thing. … It put you inside an elevator, and gave you a real sense of the struggles of an undocumented immigrant. [Fernandez picks an “arts experience” featuring a hometown playwright and a hometown issue: immigration.] “It puts you into the shoes of another person’s life.” “Long Wharf is a great theater.” All our arts institutions are great.
Elicker: I’ll give you two: Broken Umbrella’s most recent theater production [another local theater company] and—one I’m more embarrassed to bring up—I performed Justin Bieber at a fundraiser at the Shubert. We need to do more of this kind of stuff. Broken Umbrella partnered with local business, cleaned up an unused space. Everyone benefited. The Bieber performance: A creative way to raise money to make things happen. We need to do more of this.
Fernandez: You were good. You were good.
Carolina (pictured): Two experiences, both and to do with youth. Watching my son in an Edgewood play. My wife and I, we squirmed in the seats as we a watched our children perform. My son’s self-esteem was built, and he’s interested in the arts. [Carolina focuses on his wheelhouse: Schools, students, arts education.] The other was a Hillhouse play. It brought our student body together.
7:21: Keitazulu: I went to the Arts and Ideas festival Johnny Gill concert. My favorite artists are Sam Cooke—“A Change Is Gonna Come.” John Lennon—“Imagine.” James Brown. Curtis Mayfield. The arts played a big role in changes in South Africa. I used to try to sing. I didn’t sing too good. It didn’t work out. Arts can promote social change.
Harp: The most recent art experience I had: A couple of people volunteered to play music at the Atwood Senior Center. A real sense of community and being a part of a linked community. The other art that I’d like to promote, I’ve been the judge in the MLK poetry slam for the last five years. Poems about social justice and environmental issues.
7:23: Next question: What is your vision for the arts in New Haven?
Elicker: Three things we need to do. First, get more community engaged in the arts. Second, ensure arts are part of education. Third, economic development. To illustrate the first, Elicker talks about the Inside-Out project that put photo portraits on underpasses. In schools, evidence shows arts education improves reading and math. Economic development: People who come to this city should stick around—two-way streets, dynamic parking, better streetscapes will help.
Keitazulu: We should do more with arts in schools, to bring all cultures together, to make people more caring and understanding. We need more humanity in our schools.
7:27: Carolina: Research shows that $17.5 million is brought to our city as a result of the arts. We have great museums and galleries in the city. New Haven is the number one destination for arts in Connecticut. Second, after No Child Left Behind, arts education took a big hit as teachers spend more time on test preparation. At Hillhouse we have band, drama club, poetry.
Fernandez: I would say to Kermit that my son went to watch your son at the play in Edgwood, and he loved it.
“He did very, very good,” says Fernandez’s son, from the front row of the audience. Laughter.
Fernandez: When I was head of LEAP, we created partnerships to keep arts in the lives of children. … Arts can be at risk. I helped save the Shubert Theater as economic development chief. Arts were essential to us developing the Ninth Square.
Harp: Arts are an economic driver. The Arts & Ideas festival last year created $25 million in “synergies,” 152 jobs. How do we stabilize the arts in our communities? How do we ensure funding? I’ve worked really hard in the general assembly to keep funding. The state has supported the Shubert every single year. Arts shouldn’t just be downtown, but in neighborhoods. Arts has to be affordable and accessible, not just in school.
7:34: Next question: What will you do to keep up the momentum of improving arts education? Who wants to begin?
Elicker: Henry and I have already begun [been the first to answer].
Carolina: I’ll be brave and jump out front. I want to work with the superintendent to make sure we’re adequately funding arts in the schools. Co-op is a beautiful school. As a principal, I made it a point to add technology to arts. We want that kind of commitment across the board. Last night I was at an event called Flechas at Sports Haven. We need to adopt programs like that to expose them to everyone in the city. And we need to promote more of the African-American culture in the city. I would not cut any youth programs.
7:37: Elicker: This is an economic development question. We need to focus on bang for our buck. The Shubert brings money into the city. We need to support those programs. [Elicker supporter] Lee Cruz is working to promote an arts community at the closed Strong School. The city can benefit a lot. We can save money by partnering. Schools should partner with organizations like Youth Rights Media. What works? Lets fund it.
Keitazulu: My kids tell me art classes are optional. The arts are not being funded. We’ve got to wake people up and make sure we have arts teachers. In the inner city they can’t afford instruments. They need to be in the classrooms.
Harp: I think that there is enough money in the school system for arts; the question is whether the money is spent effectively. We’re using money on too many administrators. We have deans, we have sometimes six and seven assistant principals. We have the money for a strong and vigorous arts program, if we adjust spending.
7:43: Fernandez (pictured): Co-op’s partnership with the Shubert is inspirational. It introduces kids to world-class art. Singers, actors, performers come here. It can expand what young people believe is possible. We should expand programs like Bregamos theater [run by Fernandez supporter Rafael Ramos]. Harp does a great job for arts community in New Haven as a senator. “And I do think it would be horrible if you weren’t in that role.”
Zing! Laughter. Harp grimaces. [This is a challenge she faces. When she talks up her good work in Hartford, she’s also making the case for staying there.]
Question: How would you leverage the arts for New Haven’s benefit?
Fernandez: “I was heavily responsible for this.” I oversaw cultural affairs as head of economic development. Theaters bring business and people into a neighborhood. When we placed Artspace in 9th Square, all kinds of development followed. All because the city encouraged and funded Artspace to move in.
7:48: Keitazulu: I think arts would be good for the inner city. It would stimulate growth, responsibility. When I grew up we always had arts class. … People need to step up and show how it will benefit us.
Carolina: I’m going to disagree a little bit. There are arts programs available in the schools. We need to enhance them. “Arts saved my life.” Growing up in Dixwell, I went to the Q House and was exposed to art; I played trumpet and led the Freddie Fixer parade. I want those experiences for our children. We need to do a forensic audit of all departments in the city. I agree with Harp, we need to cut administrators in the school department. … We need to expand the school day, with arts.
7:53: Elicker (pictured): I’ve already talked about our schools and ways to improve arts there. … We have a branding problem in New Haven. Do you remember Night Rainbow, the laser show from the top of East Rock? People were like lemmings, or zombies, driving from all around to come to this project. We have examples of great programs, CT Folk, Elm Shakespeare. We need to re-brand New Haven not as a haven of crime, or poverty, but of the arts.
Harp: When I think about the oil tanks across the bay, I think that that’s an art project that the city could support. I also thing New Haven needs to be a place that artists can afford to live in. In Westville, the artists housing has been successful. But it’s not enough. Also, Westville has ArtWalk. Every neighborhood should have a similar festival. We need to celebrate the arts in every season. Summer is fabulous, and branded well. … We need to make it year round, and accessible, and support artists with housing.
7:57: Questions from the audience. First question: No one’s mentioned Yale. How can we partner with university and leverage its resources?
Carolina: I mentioned that a little bit. My school makes great use of Yale’s art gallery,and the British art museum. I see opportunities for better partnerships. We need to make the city safe, to attract people. The wrong thing is being marketed—danger, crime in New Haven.
Keitazulu: When I was growing up, we always went to Yale’s Peabody museum. Now prices are high and parking is a problem, too many tickets. Yale needs to make people more comfortable coming down here, to be open for everybody, not just a very few. Yale has become a separate identity in the city.
Fernandez: When I was director of LEAP, we exposed young people to the resources at Yale. That’s essential. Yale has rich resources, and many are free. But there is still a disconnect. Also, Yale students should make use of arts in the city. It’s important to mention Yale, but it’s also amazing that we could have a conversation about arts in the city without mentioning Yale. Our arts, unlike many university towns, are much broader than Yale university.
Harp: On re-branding New Haven, the brand isn’t really there. The brand isn’t in people’s minds. People in Dixwell and Newhallville don’t know what’s available. Yale can be a partner in funding in activities, and do an arts payment in lieu of taxes. That would generate goodwill.
Elicker: The gut instinct of some people is to ask Yale fore more money. The reality is you get more with a carrot than a stick. I think we should retire the Yale shuttle. … I was in an all-male a cappella group in college. There’s no reason that New Haven students shouldn’t have a tutor each. I was never asked as a student at Middlebury if I was interested in working with kids in song. I would have said yes.
8:06: Audience question: How will you support teachers in arts education?
Carolina: I guess that would be my territory. I encourage my teachers to come to Co-op and do a walk through. It starts with a vision. They also toured the university. Then they sat with me and told me what they needed: better textbooks, better technology.
Keitazulu: When I was growing up we always learned about arts: Beethoven, Bach. We need to bring back the old days. You really don’t need the new technology. At the Q House we had instruments, we had everything we needed to be artists. “The old days is the best days.”
Harp: There is very little training for city employees. Our firefighters have to get their own certificates. It’s really important we find ways to train our teachers. Partner with local artists.
Fernandez: I think Kermit gave a good series of answers. What I would add to that is, it’s not an area I know a ton about. I would sit down with folks in the arts, and bring together the wealth of knowledge here. I’m tone-deaf and don’t have any artistic talent.
Elicker: Everyone has some talent in the arts, Henry, you just haven’t found it yet. … We need universal recess in the schools. Kids are more productive then. Arts are similar. If the data shows arts works to improve students, we need to support it. But I want to talk about leadership. I talked to students in a school recently, on students’ initiative. An administrator came in and was upset that a mayoral candidate was there. Administrators need to support students.
Carolina: All of you are welcome in Hillhouse, anytime.
8:16: Last question. Claudia Herrera: I grew up in Mexico City. … Arts in the Ninth Square is not the same as in neighborhoods where quality of life is much lower. Some neighborhood have a lot of houses boarded up.
Carolina: It goes back to what Elicker was talking about with Lee Cruz, reviving the Strong School. Taking a building that is an eyesore and turning it into a great arts place for people to use. When we look at a lot of blight, there are plenty of opportunities, we can invest more of our dollars. But we have to do a forensic audit to find the money. … We have to challenge ourselves. We have to use the arts to teach about cultural sensitivity.
Keitazulu: Aztec art, African art, Indian art are not being promoted in the city. I will open teen centers where kids can learn about music, art, poetry, paintings, art from different cultures. … We need people to address the issues in the inner-city.
Carolina: I want to add an addendum. There are some great people out here, but we have a population that we need to challenge.
Elicker: How do you inject the prosperity of downtown into the neighborhoods? One size doesn’t fit all. In Newhallville, you have ConnCAT; you have open-mic night. In the Hill you have Casa Otonal, where people make beautiful sculptures out of small items. There are a lot of positive things going on in the city.
Harp: I think we have to embrace a culture of beauty. We need to express the beauty within us through the arts and through keeping our communities clean. We need to support community organizations.
Fernandez; We have great arts in every neighborhood. The amazing puppets around Day of The Dead, beautiful and stunning and unique to the culture of Fair Haven and the Hill. Krikko’s pencil drawings in the Hill. Winfred Rembert’s leather work in Newhallville. … On Sunday night I went to see live jazz at the Elks Club. The job of the mayor is to elevate that, to celebrate the arts downtown and in the neighborhoods. When I was development director, I worked to have arts in the neighborhood parks, not just on the Green.
8:31: Closing remarks, in alphabetical order.
Carolina: Today, a young man whom I mentored and helped get to college is now back in New Haven and became a father today. I visited him and his bride-to-be and their child in the hospital. I reaffirmed my commitment to make New Haven the best place it can be. We need to change the climate of this city. We need to be honest. People are uncomfortable with the truth. You can remove a Band-Aid in increments, or you can snatch it off quickly. I’d rather do it quickly. I’m committed to all of you and your children
Elicker pulls out a harmonica a plays some blues riffs. Then talks about what getting a guitar for Christmas meant to him as a teenager and beyond. Watch the video at the top of the story.
Fernandez: I came here from a rally in front of City Hall, where people were expressing their pain around the Trayvon Martin decision. It struck me that America and this city remain divided on class and race and experience. Very few things can bridge those divides and make us see the world through someone else’s eyes. New Haven needs the arts, for the economy, for education, but essential is the role of the arts in building brigades between us, in guiding us to be a better city, one city where we are all together because we see in another person’s child’s eyes, our children’s future.
Harp: I think back to when I first was elected to the State Senate and was invited to speak at a high school graduation. My speech was about the future. The valedictorian talked about who they were, and what they had to deal with, having lost classmates to senseless crime. I have remembered that all my life. What he said was so poignant that it was almost artistic. I saw him at a Yale art gallery recently, and told him he moved me. He said come and see my play. It was Aaron Jafferis [the Stuck Elevator playwright]. We have people in our town who can set this world on fire; we just have to give them the opportunity.
Keitazulu: I thought about all the slave songs, about “We Shall Overcome,” about Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “We Are The World.” People from the arts really can make the world better. We have crime and violence and we have pain and we have suffering. With arts we can make this a better city. The arts can and will make the city a better place.
8:43: That’s a wrap.