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In New Haven, Art Almost Everywhere You Look

NEW HAVEN'S identity has been entwined with Yale University's for centuries. The college's neo-Gothic buildings gild the city's oldest avenues, but it's not all heady Ivy League intellectualism in New Haven. The city has also actively cultivated the artistic left side of its brain.

Perhaps it got serious more than a quarter-century ago, when New Haven passed an ordinance that set aside 1 percent of municipal construction budgets for public art. In the years since, enough artists have gravitated to the city that every autumn more than 500 of them open their studios to the public over three consecutive weekends. And all those artists have had an impact.

There are 16 art galleries in New Haven and dozens of smaller alternative spaces, said Debbie Hesse, director of artistic services and programs for the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. And these local galleries have flourished alongside fine-arts institutions that are known nationwide.

The most famous art museums are still part of the university that has been at the city's core since 1701: the Yale Center for British Art at 1080 Chapel Street and, across the road at 1111 Chapel, the Yale University Art Gallery, an early 1950s building designed by Louis I. Kahn that was recently renovated to return it to Kahn's original vision.

Still, New Haven's smaller and lesser-known museums are worth a long look. Whatever your preference in art, be prepared to be surprised. There is no telling which gallery or museum will shock you awake with a suddenly profound moment.

That happened to me recently at the John Slade Ely House for Contemporary Art at 51 Trumbull Street, which anchors the city's Audubon Arts District and displays work by regional artists. The house sits in a gracious old neighborhood, steps from downtown, dotted by Victorian-era houses with broad and deep porches.

I visited the gallery as an afterthought, but was struck by the artist Imna Arroyo's portrayal of the journey of African slaves to America; in February an exhibition of her work took up every room in the house. Silk prints as long as 17 feet were part of the show and waved gently from the ceiling. They portrayed African gods of water; others showed a trail of bones.

The last room invited visitors to honor their ancestors by writing their names on a wall. As I burrowed into the exhibition, Ms. Arroyo, who teaches printmaking at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, arrived early for a lecture she was giving and talked about her work. “Everyone has suffered in some way,” she said, “and we all have our own stories to tell. This is why I called the exhibit ‘Breaking the Silence.' ”

But if your soul craves an afternoon to meditate on paintings of the Impressionists and the Renaissance, or art from Asia or Africa, the Yale galleries await.

There is something wonderful about visiting a renowned gallery and seeing, on the front door, the words: “This museum is free and open to the public.” That's the message that greets visitors approaching the Yale University Art Gallery.

The Yale Center for British Art, Kahn's last public commission, in 1974, captures light from the outside to illuminate the collection, which includes large landscapes and floor-to-ceiling portraits of British aristocracy.

Across the street is the meticulous $44 million restoration of the Yale University Art Gallery's Modernist main building that now bears Kahn's name and has brought renewed attention to its 185,000-item collection. From the outside, the building, finished in 1953, looks unimpressive, a windowless brick edifice attached to the more ornate Swartwout Building from 1928. But inside, the building is a work of art, from the geometric patterns of its tetrahedral ceilings, designed to house ventilation systems, to its extensive use of glass on the north and west sides to draw the outside inside.

This was Kahn's first significant public commission and was hailed as a masterpiece. Almost from the start, though, the structure splintered into offices, studios and classrooms. The restoration removed the cluttered feel and lets the collection shine.

And what a collection it is. There's a shimmering altar panel that gleams with gold and tempera, circa 1270, called “Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints Leonard and Peter,” by an artist from Florence known only as the Magdalen Master. And if that doesn't knock you out, there's always van Gogh's “Night Café.”

The gallery's most recent acquisition of African art, on the second floor, is especially striking. The exhibition combines the art of African objects and huge photographs that show them in use. On display are masks, the carved staffs of tribal chiefs and religious items alongside the photographs.

New Haven abounds with food for the body as well as the soul, with good restaurants near many of the galleries. For lunch, there is the Atticus Bookstore Café at 1082 Chapel Street. The walnut salad with apple slices, served with multigrain bread and a bowl of black bean soup, costs about $12.

The best use of a day spent soaking up the city's art scene would include one of the Yale galleries and at least one or two of the smaller, local nonprofit art galleries in the neighborhood. An intriguing one about a half-mile from the Yale galleries is Creative Arts Workshop at 80 Audubon Street, which has a two-story exhibit space in its Hilles Gallery. And about a third of a mile away is Artspace, at the corner of Orange and Crown Streets, which sits in a former furniture factory. This gallery even uses its restrooms for exhibition space.

There are also two citywide festivals, bookends for the busy art schedule of the warmer months. The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, held in June, is estimated to attract a million visitors over two weeks to hundreds of exhibits, lectures and concerts; this year it will take place from June 9 to 23. And this October marks the 10th anniversary of Citywide Open Studios, when artists welcome visitors.

“There are so many venues, it's hard to get to all the events” during a typical week, said Paul Clabby, director and curator of John Slade Ely House. “People have even created art exhibit space in their garage.”

VISITOR INFORMATION

NEW HAVEN and the Yale University art galleries are about 80 miles from Midtown Manhattan. By car, take Interstate 95 North to Connecticut Exit 47, downtown New Haven. Continue straight to North Frontage Road. Turn right onto Church Street for four blocks; turn left onto Chapel Street. The Yale Galleries are ahead three blocks on either side of the street. By train, take Metro-North from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven. Off-peak round-trip tickets are $28. A cab to the galleries will be between $5 and $10, depending on traffic.

All museums listed have free admission.

The Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street, 203-432-0600; www.artgallery.yale.edu) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel Street, 203-432-2800; www.yale.edu/ycba) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

The John Slade Ely House for Contemporary Art (51 Trumbull Street, 203-624-8055; www.elyhouse.org) is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Artspace (50 Orange Street, at the corner of Crown Street, 203-772-2709; www.artspacenh.org) is open Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Creative Arts Workshop's Susan B. Hilles Gallery (80 Audubon Street, 203-562-4927; www.creativeartsworkshop.org.) is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.

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