Artspace Visionary Comes Home

Paul Bass PhotoSteve Jobs pulled it off. Will Helen Kauder?

Kauder is returning to a cutting-edge organization she built from scratch, then left, after changing the way people think about and participate in art.

Steve Jobs did that with the organization he co-founded and spent years creating, Apple computers. He left the company in 1985, then returned in 1996 and managed to inject a renewed spirit of experimentation and industry-changing innovation.

Think iPod, iTunes, iPhone…

Here in New Haven, Helen Kauder cofounded and then spent years developing a not-for-profit called Artspace. It eventually moved into its own gallery space at Crown and Orange, in the center of the revived Ninth Square. But from the start the organization was more about bringing people from different walks of life together to create art in new ways and in usual places. (And have a lot of fun in the process.)

Think “City-Wide Open Studios,” the now-annual fall event in which dozens of local artists invite the public into their work spaces all over town on the same weekend.

Think “Backpack Project”—when in 2002, after schools across the country decreed that students must use clear backpacks in the wake of the Columbine shootings, Kauder arranged for 200 New Haven students and adults to create (and exhibit) works from donated clear backpacks. In other projects, Kauder sent artists into factories and into hotels to produce original pieces.

Think exploding arena—when Artspace stayed open all night in the hours leading to the January 2007 early-morning explosion/ demolition of the New Haven Coliseum. People gathered in Artspace a block away to reminisce about their favorite Coliseum memories, while a show called “Don’t Know Much About History” (also in its last hours) hung on the walls as a backdrop.

Kauder resigned as Artspace director later that year to commute to a new job as deputy director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield. As when a founding director leaves any young organization, people wondered if Artspace would retain its mojo in the transition. And, Steve Jobs and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz aside, few expected to see Kauder return to the helm.

But on July 1 she will. And she’s geared up to resume her original mission of “finding new spaces for art to happen” in New Haven, she said in an interview at the gallery Tuesday.

Kauder, who’s 49 and lives in the East Rock neighborhood, said she feels energized to return, and pleased not to be commuting an hour each way to work.

“It feels fresh,” she said. “Artspace is an amazing platform on which to do creative projects that are great for New Haven, great for artists, great for the community.”

She returns to an organization that, like the world around it, evolved in the past three years. It’s on Facebook now. The Facebook page has 2,664 fans, more than any other community arts organization in the region, according to Kauder.

While she was gone, Artspace also became home to a monthly “Underground” indie music gathering that brought a young crowd into the joint.

Needless to say, those developments, as well as projects she has encountered elsewhere since leaving Artspace in 2007, have Kauder brimming with new ideas.

She hopes to build on the Underground series, for instance, by creating a library on Artspace’s website of downloadable recordings by participating bands.

She’s organizing a “Draw On!” event modeled on a similar annual project of the Aldrich Museum (and the UK’s “Big Draw”). It works like the “Big Read,” in which a community reads the same book, discusses it, and organizes community events around it. Artspace will have different groups around town working with artists on murals, paper drawings, and other related events.

Meanwhile, Kauder’s been reading up on “colony collapse disorder” plaguing bees. She plans to commission artists to do bee-themed works as part of a larger sustainability project starting in May 2011. The project will also group artists with farmers markets to create new works, and tie in to a state conference taking place in town about reusing building materials.

Kauder also hopes to involve Artspace in another evolving community arts development three blocks west on Crown Street, at the new Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. Kauder has spent the school year organizing collaborations there between working artists and students; some of the results will be displayed beginning this weekend in a storefront across the street from the school (in the former Cooper’s dress shop).

Kauder’s most immediate project at Artspace involves “rekindling some of the energy around Open Studios.” In addition to the weekend tours of individual artist studios, Kauder plans to revive a feature that disappeared after she left: finding an unconventional, underused, funky non-arts building to house one weekend’s worth of exhibits by hundreds the artists who don’t have home/studio spaces to share.

The events were classic Kauder—celebratory community happenings that felt fresh, bringing artists and art-lovers into neighborhood places many had never ventured into before. The re-imagined spaces themselves become integral parts of the exhibit. In the past Kauder held the events in the unused Science Park space, in the old Pirelli building, the former Smoothie factory, and a reclaimed former Olin testing facility on Shelton Avenue. She has her eye out for a new diamond in the rough for this October’s event.

Sometimes some of the best new ideas can come from updating old ideas in new packages. Like free wireless with a Starbucks Frappuccino.

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posted by: DEZ on June 16, 2010  3:16pm

If Steve Jobs can do it, Helen’s got it in the bag!  Back to the future!

posted by: Jeff T on June 16, 2010  3:48pm

Artspace?  Never hear of it.

posted by: streever on June 16, 2010  4:36pm

I’m really excited about this: Welcome back Helen! I think over time Artspace has become a bit different. I personally miss the more freewheelin’ and more inclusive days of old.

posted by: MR on June 16, 2010  6:13pm

Awesome news! I think Helen’s vision has always had more to do with letting New Haven be uniquely New Haven (not lowering expectations, but also not having an inferiority complex about not being NYC).  I welcome whatever fresh remix of Open Studios she can bring to the table this year!

posted by: first observer on June 16, 2010  11:58pm

This is wonderful unexpected news.  Wonderful!  Ms. Kauder’s successor (now her predecessor) unfortunately ruined the annual City-Wide Open Studios event (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should have been her motto, but I suppose she was determined to make her professional mark, somehow, regardless of consequences) by eliminating the alternative-space weekend, and by changing the CWOS exhibition in Artspace’s downtown gallery from one in which every participating artist was invited to display a representative work to one that was juried, and which thus became limited in scope, and also omitted some excellent artists.  Yes, please, Ms. Kauder, bring back the alternative space, and bring back the completely representative exhibition.

The huge virtue of CWOS as it used to be was precisely that it included ALL sorts of artists, of all sorts of skill—or lack thereof.  You could really train your eye by separating, on your own, for yourself, the wheat from the chaff.  Plus, of course, it was a marvelous community event, attracting thousands, and giving the city a real sense of spirit for three weekends.

And if you saw something you liked, from among the WIDE variety, you could often buy it at a reasonable price.

And even if you didn’t buy, you could find a WIDE variety of artists happy to talk to you about their work, if you wanted to.

In recent years, CWOS has been a dud; and I know that many artists themselves were very unhappy with it.

Welcome back indeed, Ms. Kauder!

posted by: Jennifer Stockwell on June 17, 2010  10:12am

I have to say I was ECSTATIC when I heard she is returning! “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone” is an apropos way up summing the last couple of years without her enthusiasm for local art. City-Wide Open Studios has been shrunk and streamlined into a one-weekend multi-town event with no common space. I really hope that Helen can revive this once uniting event. Welcome back Helen!!

posted by: William Kurtz on June 17, 2010  10:41am

I am glad to hear this as well.  I enjoyed CWOS more when it was less exclusive; the homegrown, come-as-you-are character was much more exciting.

posted by: anon on June 17, 2010  3:16pm

How about cleaning up and using one of the old Science Park buildings?

There are still a few vacant properties and I’m sure SPDC would love the publicity.

posted by: Whatsername on June 17, 2010  5:08pm

YES! I was very upset when CWOS lost the alternative space—it was a once a year time for other artists to meet each other and connect.  I was not compelled to participate in the juried hoo-ha.  I liked the crazy aspect of so many artists on top of each other.

If alternative space comes back, so will my money to reserve a space.  Even if I don’t sell a thing, I LOVE the opportunity to put together a show in a funky space.

posted by: Rob Naracci on June 19, 2010  5:13pm

It’s wonderful that so many people are passionate about the arts in New Haven. I had my first contact with ArtSpace as a CWOS visitor and later as a participant. It’s very near and dear t my heart; for the record…

CWOS has always been open to everybody wanting to exhibit their work in their studio or any other place that they might arrange.

Without excluding anyone from the main event, recent CWOS included a closing exhibition of work selected by a guest juror to give recognition to talented artists.

Large scale buildings appropriate for alternative space exhibitions (safe, secure, dry, well-lit, available and free) are disappearing from the landscape of central New Haven.

A dramatic decline in financial support in recent years made it impossible to run the event as it had been in the past.

The board is very pleased that Helen Kauder has rejoined the organization as we continue to navigate this very uncertain economy. I personally thank all of the enthusiastic commenters and encourage each one of you to give generously to ArtSpace because it simply cannot exist to serve artists and the community without your generous financial contributions.

Rob Narracci
ArtSpace Board of Directors

posted by: Jody on June 20, 2010  2:19pm

Welcome back, Helen!  New Haven is lucky to have you!