Silence, 2001

Civic installation, photography, sculpture, New Haven, CT

Context: Silence reminds viewers of the past partnership of the historically recognized and significant site Center Church on the Green and the culturally significant but ultimately financially unsupported Dixwell Avenue Church. The Dixwell Avenue Church was the first black Congregational church in America and grew out of a relationship with the Center Church. These two sites are historically linked but not equally supported. McCallum and Tarry’s artwork used these inadequacies as a launching point to talk about historical and contemporary racial discrepancies.

Description: The installation in Center Church on the Green, New Haven, CT, had three components: contemporary photographs of African-American members of the Dixwell Avenue Church, representing their ancestors whose images were placed on pedestals and ‘seated’ in the pews of the main floor; a series of granite ‘memorial’ plaques etched with the biography of the original church members of African descent; and a reading of an address given by Reverend James Wright to the Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. The granite plaques, which were part historical record and part appropriated text from other memorial markers in the church, served as an acknowledgement to the African members of the Center Church.

These ‘memorial plaques’ appropriated the memorials and gravestones of respected White leaders from the Center Church and repositioned them on memorials to commemorate unknown black members of the Dixwell church. The plaques were not referencing specifics about the community members but, rather, spoke of the community’s general importance through the elegant language displayed upon the existing memorials for the White leaders.

The installation at Center Church focused on the period in 1820 when the members of African decent petitioned to occupy the central pews located on the ground floor and were denied by the White church elders.  After the petition’s denial, the African-American members were required to sit in the balcony, continuing the commonly held practice of segregated seating.  This decision led to a number of members establishing the first black Congregationalist church in America, known today as the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.

On November 9, 2001, the Board of Stewards, a governing body responsible for the maintenance and use of Center Church, elected to remove portions of a public art work by McCallum and Tarry. Specifically, the series of photographs were removed from the central seating area and placed in the balcony.  The artists, in a public statement, declared the actions by the Board of Stewards to remove the artwork, prompted by the private lobbying of parishioners, without notifying the Pastors, the congregation, the sponsoring arts organization or the artists, is a startling example of history repeating itself.

The action was covert and without regard or respect for the history this artwork addressed.  In response, the artists shrouded the memorial plaques that remained installed in the balcony, shuttered the balcony windows, and continued to play the audio component, a reading of James Wright’s 1837 address to The Anti-Slavery Society.

Acknowledgements: This exhibition is sponsored by Artspace, a Connecticut non-profit organization, and was initially installed at Center Church on the Green during City-Wide Open Studios 2001.  The Silence Project was funded in part by the Lustman Memorial Fund, The Gunk Foundation and the Trumbull College Fine Art Program.  Additional exhibition support and research was made possible thanks to a planning grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council.