NXTHVN, as such, isn’t an alternative to an M.F.A. program (the majority of its cohorts already attended an art school, although that isn’t a requirement) but a place where conversations that he wishes had been part of his artistic education — including with lawyers and business experts — take place alongside an intensive studio practice. While Self recalls that during her time at Yale students were encouraged to ignore the market and focus solely on their work, Pinder is trying to round out the M.F.A. program with modules similar to those on NXTHVN’s class schedule, including a financial literacy workshop. “A student should know how to price their work, and I find it is our ethical responsibility to provide these types of skills, too. There’s no reason you can’t perfect your craft and also learn how to be a working artist,” the Yale dean told me.
When artists land in an area, upmarket developers tend not to be far behind, and in cities around the globe, recent history shows artists can be pioneers of gentrification. Their arrival often signifies the death knell of the affordability that drew them to an area in the first place, displacing low-income communities and uprooting the tenuous, fraying fabric of small businesses and social support networks that took decades to build. According to Crystal Gooding, the Dixwell Community Management Team chair, the area’s remaining Black households are being squeezed out from every side, both by developers and private management companies, as well as by Yale, all of which own local real estate. Kaphar is conscious of this. “Look at what happened in parts of Brooklyn and Los Angeles,” he acknowledges. “Of course, people should be distrustful, especially in New Haven where projects start with the idea that they will engage the community and, next thing you know, that same community can’t afford to remain in their homes.”
For now, Kaphar’s personal investment in Dixwell and its people makes it unlikely that NXTHVN might default on its stated promise to have a positive impact on the area. “We are committed to this neighborhood,” he says. “We want to be the kind of place where artists come to make work and feel they have freedom, are supported, and it’s economically viable for them, but it’s equally paramount to us that the people who live here have access to what we are doing. The biggest proof of success is when local folks walk into this building and feel like it’s a place for them.”
Kaphar says artists looking for a scene, in the superficial sense (“the people that would come to your studio just to be nosy and waste your time,” as Self puts it), might come to New Haven and be disappointed. “But if you are an artist who is a maker, are looking for inspiration in an engaged community, and don’t want to be confined by the structures and expenses of New York, then you’re going to think, ‘this is the right moment to be here.’”