Residents of New Haven, Connecticut are most likely aware of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. The International Festival of Arts and Ideas was founded in 1995 and incorporated in 1996, bringing lectures, art shows, and performances to the people of New Haven. Types of performances include theater, solo performance work, music, puppet work, slam poetry and photography exhibitions. Ideas related programs are equally as varied and has included such programs as comparing and contrasting literature in the United States and China, analysis of music about wars and soldiers, using the arts to help high-risk youths, and the state of the ecosystem of Long Island Sound. The city of New Haven is heavily utilized for the festival, with venues including Yale University, the Shubert Theater, the New Haven Green, shopping centers, and even street corners. There is also family programming, tours of different neighborhoods and institutions in the city, and master classes on a variety of topics.
By now, New Haven residents have gotten used to seeing festival flags on light posts, signs on the street pointing to venues and parking, and the massive soundstage that takes over the Green. However, a lot of folks may wonder how the Festival became such an event in the city. The answer is documented in Manuscripts and Archives recent acquisition of their records from 1988 to 2013 (International Festival of Arts and Ideas Records, MS 2021). Among fundraising records, staff files, board meeting materials, festival programs and ticket sales, and video recordings of several festival events, I found a group of files marked “Nucleus Committee.” Dating mainly back to 1995, it contains correspondence, reports, and presentations about bringing the festival to life.
The festival was started by a group of three community leaders: Anne Calabresi, Jean Handley and Roslyn “Roz” Meyer. Anne Calabresi is a social anthropologist and writer, with many philanthropic interests. She has ties with the Yale community as the wife of Second Circuit Appeals Court judge Guido Calabresi, who also serves as Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law and Professorial Lecturer here at the Yale law school and used to serve as their dean. Jean Handley, who sadly passed away in 2010, worked in public relations and corporate relations with companies such as the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) and AT&T. She also served on the Executive Board of the Long Wharf Theater. Dr. Roslyn Meyer is a psychologist who received her doctorate at Yale and decided to stay in New Haven, and worked with her husband to donate and help with many philanthropic causes in the area. She also tutored children in the community.
The three women had experience working in their communities. Calabresi and Meyer had also already collaborated on bringing another group to life, Leadership, Education and Athletic Partnership (L.E.A.P.), which provides counselors to children in need in the New Haven area. Handley became involved in that organization as well. However, what interested the women just as much was bringing an arts festival to the New Haven area. They also were not content to leave it as simply an arts festival. They were also interested in bringing in academics and authorities on different topics to discuss ideas of historical, cultural, literary, political and scientific natures.
The women had a feeling that the New Haven area could and would sustain a festival of large size, especially after seeing the success of the Special Olympics World Games in town in 1995. According to the Festival’s website, Jean Handley started work before the Games, commissioning market research to figure out potential for a festival and even researched the time of the year where the weather would be best for such an undertaking. The data from this research was encouraging. In 1995, the women began reaching out to various contacts to help get this festival off the ground.
The reason why they decided to form it in the first place was from both a community building standpoint and an economic standpoint. The women in their various professional and philanthropic positions and roles in the community had seen the variety of people in New Haven and the variety of problems as well. They felt the arts could be a strong unifier for all. Additionally, they were interested in the impact the ideas part of their festival could have on the wider community. Economically, the founders had studied the impact of arts festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Both festivals had transformed their host cities from sleepy towns to tourist attractions with increases in business, employment, and income all around. The women felt this could help New Haven, which often has large amounts of residents struggling financially. There was also simply the fact that they could allow artists and thinkers the chance to present and perform to a wide audience made up of many different people who come from many walks of life.
The three leaders formed what they called the Nucleus Committee. These committee members started considering budgeting, fundraising, types of programming, structure of staffing, and even naming and logos. By August of 1995, the committee had 19 members. They had made the decision that the festival would last five days the first year (1996) and would continue to grow larger as they continued to fundraise and establish stable financing. Many of the larger institutions and venues of New Haven were approached about programming, including Yale University and the Shubert Theater. They also hired a Festival Director, Norman Frisch, who kept resigning repeatedly because he did not think they could mount a festival in a year and a half with the lack of funding and staffing. However, when he finally settled into a consultant role, the committee moved forward despite his fears and mounted their festival with performers such as the Shanghai Quartet, Le Cirque Baroque, and Bread and Puppets Theater. It turned out to be a success.
In 2015, the Festival celebrated its 20th year in New Haven and lasted from June 12 to June 27. It’s safe to say that the people behind the organization have not flagged in their drive, passion, or intensity.