Things are getting pretty nostalgic lately, what with the 50th anniversary celebrations first at Goodspeed Musicals and now at Hartford Stage — with more half-century milestones coming up next year from Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. (Yale Rep will have to wait another two years for theirs.)
There was another retro rush at a luncheon ceremony earlier this month at the venerable Union League Café in downtown New Haven that had nothing to do directly with the arts — and yet showed how the most successful leaders use the arts in their overall efforts to build a greater community.
Long Wharf Theatre gave its annual Founders Award this year to two giants in New Haven who are making (or have already made) their exit from power and prestige, at least in the positions in which most associate them.
Kudos went to Mayor John DeStefano who is leaving office in a few weeks after 20 years and Richard C. Levin, the former Yale president who also spent two decades during the same period at his job. Neither make art, but both in their own way make art happen with strong will backed by policy and politics.
Both men took office in the early ‘90s at a time when the city was far from thriving. They hit the ground running with aggressive and innovative initiatives that made the city and the university more safe, prosperous and dynamic. While town-gown relations were chilly at best prior to their arrival, the two men — the extroverted pol and the laid back prep — forged a kind of partnership that often acted as a one-two punch for not only stability but growth.
And one key element to that was not only recognizing but supporting the arts enthusiastically and with dollars that acted as investments for the future.
DeStefano enthusiastically supported International Festival for Arts & Ideas (founded by a trio of influential women: Anne Calabresi, Jean Handley and Rosalyn Meyer), the management by CAPA of the Shubert Theatre, redevelopment plans that included Long Wharf Theatres, and many other arts initiatives from neighborhoods to downtown’s Ninth Square. Levin, too, was a transformational leader, enhancing the university’s schools of music, architecture and most recently — spectacularly — art, with the reopening of the Yale Art Gallery.
The Yale School of Drama benefited from new programs and Levin’s hire of James Bundy as dean and artistic director of the Yale Rep. But Levin says it was a regret that during his tenure the School of Drama did not see a comparable physical makeover (such as a new theater and a consolidation of its classes and offices). Lead donors are needed, he says and have not emerged yet. His successor Peter Salovey told me it remains a priority for his new administration. (His brother Todd Salovey is associate artistic director of San Diego Repertory Theatre so one suspects that the new president is especially theater-friendly.)
Both men not only talked the talk (Levin in an understated way, DeStefano with brio) but also walked the walk.
“There has been considerable commitment to making New Haven and Yale centers for the arts,” says Levin.
But DeStefano perhaps said it best by giving this retrospective a nod to those who came before him.
“If you think about it, there is no reason why Long Wharf Theatre should still be alive,” he says. “And what holds it together, the stickiness to me of Long Wharf, is that people understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves and people struggled and fought really hard to keep it going.”
The stickiness of it all. I couldn’t have said it better.