A little over a year since its first art installation, the once-inconspicuous passageway between Starbucks and Landau on Nassau Street has both established itself as a creative establishment and failed to secure the funding necessary for more exhibits.
The site — Dohm Alley — is a reliable hangout on sunny days, where people pose for photographs underneath the foliage-adorned moon gate or simply enjoy themselves outside.
“We have plans for audio and video installations that will teach pedestrians something new in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee,” said Peter Soderman, professional landscape designer and co-founder of the project “Design @ Dohm Alley,” which brought together the group of artists who worked to voluntarily transform the passageway.
Town residents and workers from nearby businesses said they feel Dohm Alley has a lot of potential to add culture to its strip of Nassau Street.
“You don’t ever think to do something with an alleyway,” said Princeton resident Donna Anderson, 53, who had stopped inside the alley to read one of the bas-relief poems mounted to the walls. “It’s such a beautiful space, and everything they’ve chosen to put here is perfect — the plants, the sculptures, even this wooden bench.”
“I’m surprised it’s not busier over there,” said Samantha Hershey, a barista at the adjacent Starbucks. “There’s a lot to look at … Maybe if they switched up the art every once in a while, there would be more interest.”
Soderman explained that a key component of his vision for Dohm Alley was to display an ever-rotating collection of curated multimedia artwork. But because of a lack of funding, the Romantic Poets installation that heralded the launch of the alley last year is still the one on display today. Expensive technical elements that were meant to form an integral part of the exhibit, such as a large flat-screen TV and a full sound system, remain absent and unpurchased.
According to Soderman, Dohm Alley relies only on volunteers, donations, and grants to keep itself up and running.
“Because we currently lack the funds to move forward and build on what we’ve started, the alley remains a mute Rosetta Stone,” he said.
Kevin Wilkes ’83, president of Princeton Future, architect, and other co-founder of “Design @ Dohm Alley” — the Princeton Future initiative that is sponsoring the project by soliciting funding from local art patrons and organizations — noted that it is usually a challenge for nonprofits to raise enough money for their own initiatives. Princeton Future describes itself as “a nonpartisan group of volunteers from the Princeton area who are dedicated to protecting and enhancing the quality of life in our unique, historic community and region.”
“I don’t think there is any nonprofit in the world that is able to just sit back and watch an abundance of money flow in for all the initiatives that it hopes to accomplish,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes said Dohm Alley is the third project that he and Soderman have worked on together. They created Writers Block Garden in 2004 and Quark Park in 2008, both of which were temporary installments in a vacant lot behind the Hulfish Street Parking Garage.
He said that the kinds of project he and Soderman envisioned are only possible in Princeton.
“Princeton is such a special community, a gifted and talented community, and so much of what we have done, we would not have been able to do elsewhere,” Wilkes said.
He said that he does not know how long it will take before “Design @ Dohm Alley” acquires enough money to complete Dohm Alley.
According to other volunteers, town residents have misconceptions about the Dohm Alley exhibit’s origins.
“Part of the problem is that people think the alley just came from the town,” said Beth Jarvie, communications and events coordinator for the University’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.
Like everyone else on the “Design @ Dohm Alley” team, Jarvie works on the project out of personal interest, outside of her Keller Center job and on her own time.
She said people don’t realize Dohm Alley is volunteer-run.
“It’s not sponsored by the town, and if more people realized that, they might be more willing to give us their support,” Jarvie said.
Soderman, Wilkes, and Jarvie all expressed a desire for the project to be connected in some capacity to the University, believing that it would be beneficial for both parties. Although the team has been in contact with several University-affiliated individuals — such as English professor Susan Wolfson — the administration itself has not provided any official support for Dohm Alley.
But, according to Wilkes, the first check that Princeton Future ever received came from the University.
“When Shirley Tilghman was president of the University, she reached out to us early on with donations that were crucial to our development,” Wilkes explained. “Then, while [former project] Quark Park was in the works, she toured our project herself and gave us $10,000 to help us cross the finish line.”
Tilghman, now professor of molecular biology and public affairs, declined to comment on her involvement with either Princeton Future or Quark Park.
But, since Tilghman’s departure, the University has not been in official contact with either Princeton Future or Design @ Dohm Alley.
“The University is not involved with any projects with [Princeton Future] at this time,” Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day confirmed.
Still, Wilkes expresses hope that the University will contribute support to the project, noting that Dohm Alley could be a unique and potent way for the university to connect with the town. He said that University professors could use the alley as an “intellectual space,” where faculty may display their work or where student organizations can hold events.
“I would like to see Nassau Hall lend us some financial support. The university has already done a lot for the town, but the town also has high standards, and it desires a lot,” he said.
He added wryly, “Last time I checked, it was the only place around here that has $22 billion just sitting in the bank.”
Jarvie and Soderman echo these sentiments.
“It is not yet apparent to [the University] how Dohm Alley is unique, and what it has the potential to bring to our community,” said Jarvie. “There are lots of potential avenues through which the University could bring in its own community and take [the project] to the next level.”
According to Soderman, the University should be an obvious benefactor for a project that “shares and cultivates big ideas.”
“Dohm Alley is more than just an art gallery — it’s an educational echo chamber,” Soderman said.