For Our Connecticut Readers: Slaying the John Slade Ely House

The John Slade Ely House is being sold. The news was sudden and shocking, and when I heard it from some thunderstruck artists I immediately informed the New Haven Independent, which posted a well-reported story here. I could have written the story myself and submitted it to the Independent, which runs my theater reviews and other features, but I felt it needed a newsy touch I wasn’t prepared to bring to it. Paul Bass would get comments from the bank which oversaw the Ely House endowment, and from the building’s live-in curator Paul Clabby, and from the stunned artists whose clubs were about to evicted from the house where they’d met for decades. Paul even looked up the public tax documents about the endowment. Really thorough work.
The online commenters on that Independent story felt the way I was feeling. This was a sad day for the local arts community, even for those who were barely aware the Ely House existed. It provided something that few city arts institutions can provide anymore: space. This was a big house, with rooms for club meetings (including regular figure-drawing sessions), and large display areas. They welcomed installations as well as wall hangings. They had pedestals to put sculptures on. They hosted great opening receptions, with plenty of room for refreshments and conversations and gallery-viewing all at once.
I have a personal attachment to the Ely House. When I first moved to New Haven in the mid-1980s, its then-curator/occupant Ray Smith was one of my first real friends in the arts scene. I literally housesat at the John Slade Ely House a few times when Ray was out of town. I have a lasting memory of sitting in the middle of the night in the big upstairs gallery room where Linda Lindroth has installed a giant Camera Obscura, watching inverted photographic images of tree branches waving in the wind, cars driving down Trumbull Street and other outdoor scenes. I was even suggested as his successor when Ray decided to buy his own home and move out of the Ely House, but my candidacy didn’t pan out. I did curate a show there, utilizing all the exhibition rooms of the house for a show I dubbed “ReFuturism,” which consisted of conceptual art pieces and performances in the tradition of Italian Futurism and British Vorticism.
I was most actively visiting the Ely House in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Ray was still there, but while I’ve missed a bunch of exhibits there in recent years I’ve developed a genuine respect for Paul Clabby, who’s been the live-in curator for something like 20 years now. The house was an unusual balancing act of trad art clubs, emerging progressive artists, school-based exhibits, family friendly offerings and more provocative works.
Clabby also allowed concerts there for a time. I saw a tremendous show by some Yale School of Music students who later became the acclaimed neoclassical combo So Percussion, staging a minimalist piece (by Riley? Reich?) where a dangling microphone swung pendulum-style over a large speaker, feeding back as it revolved. The house has a spiral staircase, and the high high ceiling made the demonstration possible.
When I was still pushing my daughters in a baby carriage, local art galleries were a major stop on our strolls. The Ely House was full of delights for my whole family. In the past couple of years I made a point of seeing work by old friends there: a puppet stage built by Kim Mikenis and, in a nice bit of circularity, photographs of the American South taken by Ray Smith when he was a Yale student, years before he was the Ely House’s curator. The photos were part of a long-dormant project which Ray completed last year with a published book and an exhibit in another state. It’s unfair that he, and so many other artists, can’t use the Ely House as a gallery anymore.
The endowment that enabled the John Slade Ely House to thrive for so many years is much deplenished—too small to fund needed repairs on the house, or to continue to pay for a curator and other services. The endowment will apparently be used to fund art projects that don’t involve having a house. The clubs that have met there and/or held shows there for decades—The Paint & Clay Club, The Brush & Palette Club, The Calligraphers Guild, etc.—have been evicted; the current (114th annual) Paint & Clay Club show, curated by Will Lustenader and running March 22 through April 12, is the John Slade Ely House’s last hurrah.
I don’t know, and don’t want to comment on, the behind-the-scenes decisions that led to such an abrupt and unwelcome announcement about the house. On the other hand, it’s remarkable that the Ely House lasted as long as it did. It is a remnant of what community arts scenes were like a century ago—clubs and gathering spaces, populated by both amateurs and professionals united by social urges and artistic passions.The clubs were part of an early 20th century movement that mirrored the community theater movements and other arts revolutions which affected cities during the late Industrial age. A lot of these clubs lost their homes ages ago, as did the social clubs which also defined small cities during the first half of the 20th century. Because of the special set-up of the Ely House, those New Haven art clubs had a house to meet in right up until now. That’s an amazing legacy, as profound as any of the countless inspirational artworks displayed in the house by those clubs.
The house will morph into something capitalistic or corporate. The aura of the Ely House, however, will never dissipate.