Wells Fargo Moves to Sell Nonprofit Art Space’s Home Out from Under It

The John Slade Ely House (photo courtesy Jeanne Criscola)
The John Slade Ely House (photo courtesy Jeanne Criscola)

After supporting and promoting local artists’ work for over 54 years, a nonprofit contemporary art center in a converted Elizabethan-style home in New Haven, Connecticut, will likely shut down this week, despite months of pleading and organizing by its supporters. On July 31, the John Slade Ely House (JSEH) will close in preparation for sale by its trustee, the bank Wells Fargo, which announced the news in early March, as the New Haven Independent first reported. The bank cites costly restorations that are beyond the trust’s budget to undertake as the reason for its decision to sell. But the Ely House’s caretakers dispute those claims, contending that the building is well maintained and in stable condition. Supporters of the historic home, built in 1905 by Alfredo S. G. Taylor, are now rallying to halt the sale and save the Ely House, whose future and continued role as a space for local art are now unclear.

The house’s last resident, Grace T. Ely (John Slade’s widow), had arranged in her will for the creation of a trust to support her home as a center “for exhibiting works of art, holding art classes, lectures, and recitals, and as a meeting place for organizations interested in any form of art.” In 1961, one year after her death, the Ely House opened its first exhibition and has since hosted many more, from its annual show that partners with a prison arts program to an exhibition of Chinese protest calligraphy held in support of students at Tiananmen Square. Ely had designated New Haven’s Union Trust Company as the eventual sole trustee once its individual trustees retired or passed away, but the company later merged with Wachovia, which was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008. In its official statement regarding the fate of the JSEH, Wells Fargo said a trust will still exist to nurture the local creative community.

“In keeping with Ms. Ely’s understanding that over time, Ely House may need to be sold, Wells Fargo is preparing the house for sale, and converting the Trust from an operating to a non-operating private foundation,” Wells Fargo spokesperson Vince Scanlon said. “This trust will continue to support the fine arts in and around New Haven through grants to charitable organizations.”

“We have heard the community’s concerns,” Scanlon later told Hyperallergic in an email, noting that the bank had pushed back the Ely House’s original date of closure to accommodate spring and summer exhibitions that had already been scheduled.

(image via Friends of John Slade Ely House for Contemporary Art/Facebook) (click to enlarge)

Spearheading the efforts to stop the sale is the group Friends of the John Slade Ely House, an ad hoc committee formed by three former JSEH curators: Jeanne Criscola, Raymond Smith, and Anna Bresnick. Friends of the JSEH considers the bank’s plan a poor continuation of the Ely House’s ongoing, dedicated outreach to its community. Actions taken by a national corporation working remotely, the group argues, are incomparable to efforts by locals familiar with the art scene like the House’s widely lauded, longtime curator Paul Clabby. (Because of a confidentiality agreement with Wells Fargo, Clabby was not able to comment on this story.)

“It may sound like a good alternative, but they’ve indicated no particular talent in running the John Slade Ely House of Contemporary Art,” Criscola told Hyperallergic. “How can they be trusted to run a grant-giving foundation for the arts from thousands of miles away?” (The corporate headquarters of Wells Fargo are in San Francisco.) Scanlon said that Wells Fargo has offices “in the New Haven area with employees in the Trust area,” but according to Friends of the JSEH, trust representatives have never visited the house.

Ely’s will also stipulated that if the property is sold, those in charge of the trust must find a replacement space, “something Wells Fargo has not even contemplated,” Criscola said. “It is clear from her will and bequest that an art center was uppermost in Ely’s wishes.”

But many value the Ely House specifically for its unique architecture, including artist Peter Waite, who has shown there on multiple occasions and finds the building “a refreshing alternative to some of the more traditional spaces to view art, particularly in New Haven and the region.

“The very physical structure is unique and slightly quirky and offers a kind of ‘level playing field’ for all the diverse art that has been presented over the years,” Waite told Hyperallergic. “I think the very place itself helps the art that is shown there because it removes a certain uniform formality that most museums and galleries have.”

Three weeks ago, Friends of the JSEH launched an online petition to protect the House from sale until it received a complete accounting from Wells Fargo to justify putting it on the market. The petition, which the group presented to the office of Connecticut’s Attorney General last week, currently has over 900 signatures and has garnered messages of support from places as far away as Cambodia and Brazil.

“A very historical and valuable establishment for the Arts in our region,” local painter William Meddick wrote. “I hold Wells Fargo and their trustees responsible for what I consider ‘a crime by big industry’ against the community and be held accountable.”

“As an artist, the Ely House has been more than just a place to exhibit,” Joan Fitzsimmons, who also signed the petition, told Hyperallergic. “It has fed me. It has fed me with astutely curated programming, by Paul Clabby … and with the programming of others that he has supported.”

Yesterday, the Friends of the JSEH announced that the Connecticut Attorney General’s office will meet with the bank on July 30 — just one day before the House’s planned closure — to discuss leaving the building open “until a fair and impartial assessment can be made of Wells Fargo’s exaggerated claims that the building is in such disrepair that it will take all the funds in the trust to fix it.” The group also wants to preserve the House’s archive of photographs, exhibition releases, catalogues, and more, which it says will be thrown out after July 31.

Martha Lewis, "Ligeia" (2012) from the exhibition "Exploded Views"  (photo courtesy the artist)
Martha Lewis, “Ligeia” (2012) from the exhibition ‘Exploded Views’ (photo courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

The specifics of the Ely House’s current condition are murky and unconfirmed by all involved. Former curator Raymond Smith told Hyperallergic that Wells Fargo had estimated the building needed $500,000 worth of repairs, mostly to fix an allegedly leaky roof, but an experienced, licensed contractor Smith hired last week gave him a quote of just $30,000 to $40,000 and failed to observe any major damage. Smith, who alongside Clabby has taken care of the House for 37 years, said it is sturdy and has weathered hurricanes and blizzards. He suspects that Wells Fargo never conducted an inspection on site since it never presented Friends of the JSEH with any contractor estimates or final assessments. The bank, he added, also does not manage the trust as efficiently as possible, allegedly turning day-to-day maintenance responsibilities that had been carried out by Smith and Clabby — such as shoveling snow and raking leaves — over to a third-party group “at substantial unnecessary cost.” One such outsourced project, he said, resulted in “atrocious work” on the back porch that consequently is now no longer accessible for the disabled.

Hyperallergic asked Scanlon about the specifics of Wells Fargo’s inspections and maintenance of the House and received the following statement:

As part of our fiduciary duties our real estate team monitors and manages trust assets like the Ely House. This includes inspecting the property and engaging third parties as appropriate to determine the needs of the Ely House.

The Ely House, Scanlon anticipates, will enter the market “in the near future,” but Wells Fargo has “no specific dates at this point.” Suspension of its closure rests on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting between the bank and the office of Connecticut’s Attorney General. If Friends of the JSEH successfully halts the sale, the group wants the Ely House to remain a gallery and meeting place during investigations into Wells Fargo’s management.

“No other institution is like it or compares,” Friends of the JSEH said. “It is beloved by the community and valued by the entire arts community because it is so inviting and accessible to all.”

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