by Lizzy Donius, Executive Director, Westville Village Renaissance Alliance – a CMSC Member Community

Every Mother’s Day weekend in Westville – a community-oriented, family-friendly arts district in New Haven – our annual Artwalk draws thousands of visitors.  Highlights include two days of live music, art-making, a vendor market, a beer garden, a dance party and more.  It is the anchor program for our organization, the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, and a defining event for our community.

Thabisa is one of the performers participating in Westville Virtual Art Walk 2020. (Johnathon Henninger / Courtesy Westville Village Renaissance Alliance)

In early March, our committee was deep in preparations for this year’s celebration when it suddenly seemed inevitable that our beloved Artwalk would be canceled. Disappointment set in, but we continued to meet, and quickly acclimated to Zoom.  We enjoyed connecting online, and wondered if this kind of community connection could happen on a larger scale. Was there a way for Artwalk to happen, virtually?

We took stock of our assets. Tech knowledge? Check.  We had Luke Hanscom and Lotta Studios willing to take on multiplatform live-streaming and to juggle live and pre-recorded content.  Good design? Check. Westville’s Design Monsters  – Susan McCaslin and George Corsillo – could build us a great-looking website, logo, and help manage online sales of t-shirts and artwork.  Videography and Photography?  Check. Westville’s Travis Carbonella and Jonathon Henninger had us covered.

Programming easily transitioned online:  Westville’s DJ Dooley-O and Alisa from Alisa’s House of Salsa still threw a great dance party. Our local comedy troupe, The Regicides, created a video performance.  Westville-based headlining musical acts Thabisa and Rocky Lawrence performed in their yards while our masked crew captured the video.  Westville favorite Chrissy Gardner held an Artwalk edition of her online ‘ Moose Piano Lounge’, which had already built a substantial audience. And we figured out how to hold our Annual Rubber Duckie Race, our 6×6 Artwork Auction and Live T-Shirt Screen-Printing.  With videos from our local businesses and artists and the requisite car parade, we ended with enough programming to fill Friday night and all day Saturday too.

Rocky Lawrence will participate in Westville Virtual Art Walk 2020. (Johnathon Henninger / Courtesy Westville Village Renaissance Alliance)

Our sponsors, including Chapel Haven, Children’s Community Programs of CT, the City of New Haven Mayor’s Arts Grants, Southern Connecticut State University, Yale and DECD, generously stayed on.  With this money, we were able to pay the small, Westville-based businesses and artists listed above, among our hardest hit by the Covid-19 Pandemic.  We also created the Westville Small Business Fund, driving more Artwalk money back into our hard-hit small businesses.  All proceeds from Artwalk sales of T-Shirts, Rubber Ducks and Artworks in our 6×6 auction were put towards the fund, and we broke all our records for sales.   And as luck would have it, the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven held their annual Great Give event the same week.  Virtual Artwalk and the preceding days played something like a telethon for our Westville Small Business Fund.  At the end of the week, we had more than $30,000 to give away, far exceeding our expectations.

And best of all, Virtual Artwalk was a hit!  Over the course of our 11 hours of programming, we had more than 5,000 real-time views, averaging 30 minutes each.  In the past month the recordings have racked up more than 3,500 additional views.  The response from the community was incredibly enthusiastic – Artwalk had provided fun and a true community connection at the time when restrictions, and our anxiety, was at its highest.

We had so much fun pulling the event together, and we learned so much in the process. I know many of the innovations we engineered for the special circumstances of this year – most notably broadcasting over social media – will undoubtedly remain a part of Artwalk going forward. As restrictions ease a bit but community-based gatherings remain difficult, I would encourage other communities to explore virtual programming as a way of connecting communities and amplifying the messages of local businesses!

Westville ArtWalk was a 2019 CT Main Street Award of Excellence recipient.
Watch ArtWalk Memories 2019.

You can also check out these interesting links about this year’s virtual Artwalk: