An Artist Rises, and Brings a Generation With Him

An Artist Rises, and Brings a Generation With Him

By Patricia Leigh Brown for The New York Times - 12 April 2019  

In a struggling neighborhood with a vibrant history, Titus Kaphar found a home for himself. Now he’s creating a center there to nurture emerging artists.

NEW HAVEN — Like many town-and-gown cities, New Haven is a community of parallel narratives. There is the storied Elm City of Yale University, a place of carillon bell towers, leaded glass windows and lush quadrangles behind iron gates.

But the artist Titus Kaphar wants to shift the narrative to a part of the city little known to outsiders, a once-thriving historic African-American neighborhood called Dixwell where he and his family have lived for more than a decade.

Mr. Kaphar, 42, has a profound connection to the forgotten, from the slaves owned by the founding fathers to the ubiquity of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, including his own father. The recipient of a recent MacArthur “genius” award, the artist is challenging racism in a body of strong work that has entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery, and was recently featured at the National Portrait Gallery. Mr. Kaphar is known for appropriating images from American and European art in order to subvert them, cutting them into his canvases to pull back the velvet curtain of history. He wields materials like tar, wire, gold leaf and nails to unearth the past’s inconvenient truths, and to shine a restorative light on those residing in the shadows.

In Dixwell, a neighborhood buffeted by need in the shadows of Yale, he is rewriting the script with NXTHVN (for “Next Haven”), a $12 million nonprofit arts incubator and fellowship program he founded to nurture rising talents. The enterprise is housed in two once-moribund factory buildings that are being reimagined by the architect Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

He envisions the project as a beacon for graduates hellbent on getting out of Dodge for New York (Mr. Kaphar, a 2006 Yale School of Art graduate, “drank the Kool-Aid” himself). “New Haven has some of the most esteemed artists in the world,” he said. “Yet as a city, we’ve done very little to say, ‘Why don’t you stay here?’”

The first half, studios for seven artist-fellows, is up and running in a former ice cream factory filled with natural light. The second building, where lab equipment was manufactured, is under renovation and NXTHVN hard hats are everywhere. The complex will unfold in phases and include a cafe run by a local nonprofit, a combined co-working and gallery space, a theater and a three-story addition with skylights and loft-like apartments for visiting artists-in-residence.

Financing for the 40,000-square-foot project has come from the state ($3 million) and the city ($1 million for facade improvements), with several million dollars from private foundations and philanthropies. Collectors of the artist’s work have helped subsidize the fellowship program.

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