The Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s 38th annual awards ceremony, held Friday during a luncheon at the New Haven Lawn Club, began with a protest. As patrons were seating themselves in the Lawn Club’s expansive ballroom, a troop of young women marched in file toward the stage, chanting and holding aloft signs about stopping domestic and sexual violence, about women’s suffrage, about curing breast cancer.
The women were dancers from Premier Dance Company, headed by Hanan Hameen, one of the afternoon’s award recipients. They took the stage to a blast of music from the speakers, moving from funk to pop to hip hop, as patrons finished sitting down — a fitting nod to the theme of the arts awards this year, of phenomenal women.
That the phrase was taken from Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” was lost on none of the presenters, as Angelou’s refrain — “I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.” — was taken up a few times during the ceremony.
This year’s awards went to five such women: Hameen, Jackie Downing, Ruby Melton, Elinor Slomba, and Hanifa Nayo Washington.
First, however, came presentation of the C. Newton Schenck III Award for lifetime achievement in and contribution to the arts, which went to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. In a prerecorded interview, DeLauro said that her family had “a rich history in the arts.” Her father, a self-taught musician, took her to the Metropolitan Opera to see Verdi’s Aida when she was 9 years old. “Opera and classical music were an everyday experience in my home,” she said.
She wanted to be a tap dancer, but her father said she should get a more “stable profession,” she said. “So I ran for office.”
“I wish we didn’t have to struggle for funding” for the arts, she continued. “There was a time when we eliminated funding for the arts” altogether, a situation she considered “barbaric.”
On the awards’ theme of phenomenal women, she cited her own inspiration: “My mom taught me to never take no for an answer and to never give up.”
In accepting the award in person, DeLauro turned her attention to the awardees, who “deserve the recognition they are getting today” for their roles in New Haven’s arts community. “New Haven is a center of the arts. It’s a cultural oasis,” she said.
She also spoke of the late Schenck himself, whom she’d worked alongside when she was a part of Mayor Frank Logue’s administration in the 1970s. “Newt was a rare and special man,” quiet and effective, with a vision for creating what is now New Haven’s official arts district centered on Audubon Street, DeLauro said. “I could not help but be influenced.”
They became friends enough over the years, enough that “I lent one of Newt’s daughters my skis. And I never got them back. But it didn’t matter, because I never used them,” DeLauro said, to laughter.
Of the award itself, she said, “I take it as a call to do more, and I will.”
Next, Frances “Bitsie” Clark and her proteges, the self-styled “Bitsie Chicks” — Barbara Lamb, Mimsie Coleman, Robin Golden, Betty Monz and Maryann Ott, led on Friday by Lamb — took the stage to announce the creation of the Bitsie Clark Fund for Artists, named in honor of the arts leader who was executive director of the Arts Council for two decades and integral to creating the Audubon Arts District. The new fund was designed to provide money for artists and arts organizations to work together more closely. Its first grantee, Lamb announced, will be Barbara Harder. Harder will partner with Creative Arts Workshop, where she has taught printmaking for over 40 years. The $2,500 grant will fund travel to Japan, where Harder plans to visit master papermakers, bring examples back to New Haven, and invite other artists to CAW to explore papermaking as well.
The first award recipient of the day, Jackie Downing, is the director of grantmaking and nonprofit effectiveness at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. She has also worked with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, the Dixwell “Q” House, and the Town of Hamden, along with the Whitney Players, a theater company.
“I want to challenge you on a higher level,” Downing said to her audience. “I’m asking you to join me in being a fire starter” — someone who doesn’t simply support the arts, but actively engages with the arts community and brings others along to do the same. “Take a child to New Haven’s Nutcracker and make it an annual tradition,” she said. “Join the cabaret class at Neighborhood Music School ... Take a bookbinding class at Creative Arts Workshop.”
“Don’t ignore the smaller theaters,” she continued, encouraging the audience to attend more fundraisers and descend with their friends en masse on a production at Collective Consciousness Theatre in Fair Haven. “Your ticket could be just the fire they need,” she said. Each person in the audience, she said, could become fire starters “so our community of artists can continue to ignite the vibrancy in us all.”
Hanan Hameen, daughter of jazz musician Jesse Hameen, founded the Artsucation Academy Network, and founded and now directs Ms. Hanan’s Dance and Beyond, directs NMS’s Premier Dance Company. She’s also a founding member of the New Haven Hip-Hop Conference and artistic director of the Healing Drum Society, and works with the Lupus Foundation of America.
Hameen’s acceptance speech took the form of a poem, riffing on Angelou’s to create her own, using the metaphor of women as wearing multiple scarves. Some can silence and do violence. Some can kill. Others can cleanse and protect.
“You determine how and when you will carry your scarf,” she said. She honored “the matriarchs, the womb of man.” She took up the mantle of her past, from Africa to the Middle Passage to the Great Migration and back to Africa, the “legacy of the pioneers” and “the dream of the freedom fighters.”
“I will continue to use my gifts as a weapon in the force of justice,” she said. “Your life is yours to dictate.”
Ruby Melton has served on the boards of Long Wharf Theatre, the Shubert Theatre, National Council for the American Theatre, International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Gateway Community College Foundation, Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, and Shepherds, Inc., also working on mentorships with high school students in New Haven.
She directed her comments at the representatives of arts organizations in the audience. “As our organizations seek more representation in the community, we must ask: Does our board look like our community?” she asked. She also enjoined arts organizations to “take more risks,” citing in particular a performance by theater provocateur Taylor Mac at the Arts and Ideas Festival. He “performed hits from the radical lesbian songbook” of the 1990s, Melton said, and related that while his show made many in the audience visibly uncomfortable, “some of us in the audience quietly celebrated.”
She reminded the audience that 2019 would mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. “I look forward to how our arts community will celebrate,” she said. She hearkened back to the beginning of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which was created by three women — “women who said, ‘we’re going to change things. We’re not going to ask permission. We’re going to do it ourselves.’”
Elinor Slomba is the founder of Arts Interstices and Verge Art Group. She directed Project Storefronts and has worked with Made in New Haven, The Future Project, The Grove, Artspace, and the New Haven Museum.
“I hope you know how beautiful you look,” she said, addressing the audience from the stage. She described her joy at realizing a dream of getting to “hang around with artists for a living without having to make stuff.”
She then spoke to artists directly. “Your path is hard,” she said, “so much harder than occasions like this would suggest.” But the art they created was as necessary as ever, because it showed that “the world resists flattening” and that “we are not so simply and easily divided.”
“I always wish I could do more,” she continued. “I believe the heart is a public place ... we can continue to create the spaces to live in, love in, and fully be ourselves in.”
Healer, truth-teller, producer, singer-songwriter, and weaver of community stories, Hanifa Nayo Washington is an Inspiring Equity Arts Fellow with the William Casper Graustein Memorial Fund. She curates the Lit Happy Hour and is program director of The Word. She has been involved with youth programs in The Freedom Schooner Amistad and Solar Youth. She’s part of the team of Co-Creating Effective and Inclusive Organizations (CEIO) and is a leader in the Community Leadership Program.
She began by telling a story of being in grade school, learning to write cursive. Her teacher, Ms. Diamond, had a suggestion for her. “You know what, honey?” Washington recalled that teacher saying. “I think it would be easier if we just called you Ann.” She spelled out Ann, over and over, on the page, and took it home to her mother. Her mother was outraged, and took the issue to the school principal.
“Needless to say, within three days Ms. Diamond was fired,” Washington said, and her mother had something to say to the principal and to her.
“This is her name,” Washington recalled her mother saying. “Hanifa, bringer of happiness and true believer, and you will never take that away from her. Do you understand?”
“I am here today because I am my mother’s daughter,” Washington said. “It is important for all of us to fervently uphold the arts ... it is the antidote to the fear and violence that has always been.”
“The challenge to you is to stand up in this revolution,” she added.
She ended with a simple song.
In one revolution around the sun
In one revolution around the sun
In this revolution around the sun
Breathe in, breathe out
The second time through the song, across the room, many other voices joined in.