John Slade Ely House Closing Its Doors

David Sepulveda PhotoThe John Slade Ely House, a not-for-profit art center tucked inside an Elizabethan home at 51 Trumbull Street and known for promoting the work of local artists, is shutting down after 54 years.

Wells Fargo, the bank that serves as the center’s trustee, announced it is closing the center and converting the organization to a grant-making foundation.

Wells Fargo originally notified the curator and resident art clubs that the house would close on March 31. It agreed to extend the closing to accommodate the New Haven Paint & Clay Club’s 114th juried exhibition, scheduled to run from March 22 to April 12.

Grace T. Ely made provisions in her will to create a trust to run the home as a center “for exhibiting works of art, holding art classes, lectures and recitals and as a meeting place for organizations interested in any form of art” after her death. Ely died in 1960; the center opened in 1961. It was named after her late husband, a Yale School of Medicine professor. It has hosted up to ten exhibits a year, highlighting the work of professional artists as well as high-school students. It has also housed two longstanding clubs, Paint & Clay and Brush and Palette.

“The Ely House, unfortunately, needs substantial repairs that the trust is not sufficiently funded to pay for. In keeping with Ms. Ely’s understanding that over time, Ely House may need to be sold, Wells Fargo is preparing the house for sale, and converting the trust from an operating to a non-operating private foundation,” stated Wells Fargo spokesman Vince Scanlon. “This trust will continue to support the fine arts in and around New Haven through grants to charitable organizations, and Wells Fargo will work to accommodate events currently booked at the home during this transition.”

The building needs about $500,000 in repairs, observed Paul Clabby, who has served as the John Slade Ely House’s curator for the past 20 years. “Just to stop the water leaking you’re talking a minimum of $300,000.”

Allan Appel PhotoClabby, who said he earns $25,000 a year as well as free lodging as the curator, now needs to find a new place to live. “They’ve given me a severance, which will help me. Otherwise I’d be out on the street. I’ve got 20 years of stuff here,” he said.

He noted that the closing means the cancellation of an upcoming exhibition of art by Connecticut prisoners as well as an annual display of local high school artists’ work.

“My heart is broken for these artists,” Clabby said. “I’ve had teachers come to me and say, ‘I was in this show in high school, and I became an art teacher.”

“Everyone is very sad” about the closing, said Jeanne Ciravolo, president of both Brush and Palette and Paint & Clay, whose members meet three or four times a week in a studio at the Ely House.

The trust that runs the center was moved from New Haven to North Carolina in 2008 after Wells Fargo replaced Wachovia bank as the trustee.

According to its most recent Form 990 tax form, from fiscal year 2013, it cost the trust $122,183 a year to operate the center. It reported taking in only $16,794 in adjusted net income.

The trust lost much of its value in the 2008 crash, according to Clabby.

The Form 990 lists the trust’s total assets at $1,545,763, including $655,050 for the Trumbull Street property. The property had been worth $864,375 just a year earlier, according to the form. (Click here to read the form.)

Clabby said the trust used to have dedicated trustees, but Grace T. Ely’s will did not call for them to be replaced upon their deaths. And they all have died. The will envisioned the house being sold at some point if the trust couldn’t continue meeting expenses, Clabby said.

Click here, here, and here for Independent stories about some John Slade Ely House events.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on March 5, 2015  5:32pm

another ill-considered decision from the ‘balance sheet’ crowd that will adversely affect the cultural vibrancy of New Haven.

Why not have both a museum and a grant writing entity?

This is truly sad news. It JSEH is the best gallery in New Haven—it consistently offers high quality regional work, while not pandering to art czars of “The Establishment”.

These are Some Trustees…..whose cold, corporate vision is this???

posted by: Esbey on March 5, 2015  6:05pm

I curious as to the fees that Wachovia/Wells Fargo has collected over the years, investing this money in stocks that “lost much of [their] value in the 2008 crash.” In contrast, investments in sensible low-fee mutual funds have typically more than recovered their 2008 value.  However sensible it is to sell the house, it is also very convenient that selling the house will allow Wells Fargo to earn further investment fees from the re-invested proceeds of the house. There are no remaining local trustees to police this and, now, no local curator. 

Lesson to all the (non-existent) rich readers of this post: never allow a bank to be the trustee of your inheritance.  They have wide legal latitude to generate fees for themselves while not caring excessively much about your goals.  It would have been better if there had been a provision for permanent local trustees or for the trust to be given to some existing local arts charity at the time the house was sold.  Too late.

posted by: Local History Teacher on March 5, 2015  6:27pm

My father was in many shows here, between the ‘60’s and 2006. It was a lovely space, where you could find incredible work any time you stumbled in. Is Wells Fargo the ultimate decider of their fate? They are not art lovers. My dad had a painting at the front entrance of Wachovia Bank in Hamden. When Wells Fargo took over, they auctioned it off without contacting us. They then hung a 40 x 48 ad for Wells Fargo in its place.

posted by: Emily G on March 5, 2015  8:13pm

Sad to see this place go. I showed work here when I was a student at ECA over 10 years ago. This was a great asset to the local arts community, as Bill has said.

posted by: Mister Jones on March 5, 2015  8:37pm

Someone should look at the file at the New Have Probate and see if it’s not too late to intervene and object. It sounds like a done deal. The problem is obviously that the trust can’t generate enough income from investments to pay the bills. $1mm invested—and they have less—will typically generate $50k or less per year. But I’ll be the bigger problem is the corporate bean-counters’ lack of interest in running the operation. They would need a local board of committed arts patrons and artists to make it work.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on March 5, 2015  11:04pm

What a shame ... among other things, it was a top-notch event space for other small local non-profits, with user-friendly flexible rules that allowed event holders to bring their own food, and a ridiculously low fee ($150).  All of this made it possible for organizations to hold an affordable event in intriguing, attractive, historic surroundings.

And it does seems as if the Trustees should have had something in their by-laws to provide for their own continuance.  Imagine allowing a Board to just die off, one by one!

posted by: Leslie Kuo on March 6, 2015  2:15am

Finally something we can agree on 100%, Bill. This is really terrible that such a positive place in the community is being shut down because it fell into the hands of a national bank that knows and cares nothing about New Haven. I have such fond memories of seeing all kinds of work there, chatting with artists on the beautiful staircase, hearing Bill Beckett play all his different guitar pedals at a concert… WHAT A BUMMER.

posted by: Marion on March 6, 2015  7:06am

If it opened in 1961 after she died, then the center had a 54-year run, not bad. But if her estate is still worth over 1.5 million, with all these corporate change and mergers, and dead trustees, someone needs to keep an eye on where that money goes from now on. Since Ely clearly wanted to benefit the New Haven area arts community, maybe Mayor Harp should keep an eye on this.

posted by: robn on March 6, 2015  9:04am

The 2008 crisis was bad, but I have a hard time believing that an endowment that was large enough to sustain this organization for 54 years was run into the ground by one market slump (unless the account manager was making irresponsibly risky investments….something that is JUST NOT DONE with non-profit money). Wells Fargo owes the citizens of New Haven a more complete explanation.
Will our alderpersons look into this? Maybe as a parting service Jorge Perez could take a look at the books?

posted by: 1644 on March 6, 2015  12:20pm

I expect the FED’s financial repression has greatly diminished the trust’s returns are well as the 2008 crash.  In any case, those who object to its closing are free to support it with their own funds.

posted by: duo dickinson on March 7, 2015  5:57am

$300k to stop leaks…I think a “0” was added here: an entire new asphalt shingle roof might cost $60K, repairs can be 1/4 of that… I know nothing of the circumstances of the closure, but if its predicated on $300k to save the building it may be time to get some bids…

posted by: Local History Teacher on March 7, 2015  1:45pm

Is this a done deal? Is there any way to protest this closing, or is it totally hopeless?

posted by: 1644 on March 7, 2015  3:44pm

Duo: the roof is likely slate, not asphalt.  There may also be infiltration around windows and through between the stone facing, requiring pointing.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on March 7, 2015  7:12pm

I’d assume that the $300,000 estimate to fix the roof means replacing it with a new slate roof and new copper work, replicating the slate and copper original now in place. Looking at the satellite view, it seems the size of a small Gothic-revival church. I belong to a parish whose church has such a roof, not much larger. It is over 140 years old and its original slate and copper-flashed roof also needs to be replaced—at a cost of $500,000. Of course, it could be done for far less with lowest-grade, 3-tab asphalt shingles. And in 20 years it would have to be done again.

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 8, 2015  1:22pm

Sounds to me like some ‘trustees’ should be writing some grants now to deal the the preservation of this cultural treasure.