Pictured above: Artisan Collective co-owner Jae hangs an Open Doors Arts Festival banner outside her Halsey Street store, October 2013. Photo by Andaiye Taylor
For decades, Newark has been synonymous, in the popular imagination, with urban decay and crime. Now the city is experiencing its largest period of economic growth – as measured by the pipeline of current and pending development here – since the 1950s.
The arts are playing a crucial role in rebranding the city, attracting creative people here, and helping to spur investment. But it remains to be seen whether the artists who’ve helped facilitate that development will benefit from the cultural context they helped create.
“Artists have been a big part of the reemergence of the city as a place that is attractive to people, and creating an identity for the city,” explained Linwood Oglesby, executive director of the Newark Arts Council. Founded in 1981 as an advocacy organization to promote and expand the artistic and cultural resources of the city, the Newark Arts Council sponsors arts education programs, gives grants to local artists, and hosts the annual Open Doors Studio Tour, which is a citywide arts tour and community celebration of the arts in Newark.
“[The art scene] really became an attraction for people outside the city. It gives the city a new light. It has helped to brand Newark as a really hip and happening place,” Oglesby said.
When the Newark Arts Council held its first Open Doors in 2002, there were only twelve galleries in the city. But Oglesby credits that first studio tour with galvanizing the Newark art scene: “I think that became a rallying point for the artists who were in the city at the time, but also to the artists who were being attracted into the city at that point,” he said.
After that, Olgesby explained, “More galleries began to crop up. More artists began to move in. Artists began to work together and to collaborate and to create their own spaces and their own galleries, and through the process, more people began to be attracted to the city. So it kind of fed itself: the more artists who came, the more artists came.”
The 2013 Open Doors featured roughly 40 galleries and pop-up spaces, and showcased the work of approximately 300 artists. As the arts community in Newark continues to thrive, Open Doors gets bigger every year. Oglesby calls it “the centerpiece of this new emergence of the arts in Newark.”
This community of artists is what attracted Brendan Mahoney to Newark. A practicing artist and trained architect, Mahoney, 31, left Jersey City two years ago to move to a loft in Newark’s Ironbound district. “I came here specifically as an artist, making artwork and wanting to engage in a community that really had a sense, from an art standpoint, that there was a community, and the community was really building something,” he said.
Mahoney hosts community events and potlucks in his loft space, which he calls Apartment 16. He is currently doing a residency at the Newark Print Shop, and has showcased his work in three Open Doors so far.
Brendan Mahoney at Newark Print Shop. Photo by Caroline McCaughey.
And it’s not just Mahoney who’s moving to Newark. As rising rents are pushing artists out of traditional artistic strongholds like Williamsburg, Bushwick, Hoboken, and even Jersey City, some are starting to move to Newark. Just a short PATH train ride from the center of the art world in Manhattan, Newark’s raw industrial spaces and cheaper rents are proving a lure. “There has been a steady influx of artists coming into Newark and choosing to make it home,” Oglesby said.
But Newark wasn’t always a regional destination for the arts. In fact, when New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean proposed building a world-class performing arts center in downtown Newark in 1986, many of his critics and supporters thought the idea was crazy, that no New Jersey suburbanite would choose to spend an evening in Newark when they could drive a little further to Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, or to Broadway.
But Governor Kean pushed ahead with the proposal anyway. After receiving major federal and state economic development funds, as well as corporate sponsorships, most notably from Prudential, construction of the $187 million New Jersey Performance Art Center (NJPAC) broke ground in 1993. The concert hall opened in 1997 to great fanfare and rave reviews of the space.
A major claim of then-Governor Kean and other NJPAC advocates was that building a major arts complex in downtown Newark would spark more development and a revitalization of the city. In fact, explicitly stated in NJPAC’s mission is just that: “Help drive Newark’s revitalization.” But would a performance center be enough to spawn real development in Newark’s downtown? Maybe not single-handedly, but it has definitely helped.
Gizem Bacaz, 32, a painter and founder of Seed Gallery on Market Street, first thought of moving to Newark after seeing a show at NJPAC. “I had this experience walking around and looking at the architecture. And that kind of planted a seed in my head,” Ms. Bacaz said, adjusting her thick, black rimmed glasses and lighting a stick of incense inside her gallery. In 2005, she moved to Newark. Two years later, she opened Seed Gallery. She recently moved her gallery to Market Street, a hub of the Newark scene, and the focus of much of the 2013 Open Doors.
“I could have just moved to Brooklyn and gotten a spot and had all of these artist friends around that were all doing the same thing. But instead, I thought it would be much more valuable to be in an environment where it is a blank canvas…If you really want to do something, it’s better to go to a place like Newark, where it isn’t developed. It’s just a blank slate,” said Bacaz.
In fact, Newark’s art scene is nothing new, and it well preceded the gravitational pull of anchor institutions like NJPAC. The late Amiri Baraka, a Newark legend and former poet laureate of New Jersey, is widely reputed to be the founder of the Black Arts Movement; Arts High School has been a fixture in Newark for over eight decades; Newark School of the Arts has educated tens of thousands of people in all forms of artistic expression; and individual artists – renowned Newark native Jerry Gant is one who continues to make waves – have been contributing to the city’s art context for years.
(We reached out to Mr. Gant via email for comment, but were unable to reach him as of this publishing.)
Still, there is a renewed energy around the arts in Newark, with relative newcomers like Bacaz injecting fresh energy into the scene, and collaborations birthing exciting projects and exhibits. Aferro, one of the larger Newark galleries, is also located on Market Street. Recently, Aferro partnered with RBH Group, a large property owner and developer, to fill vacant storefronts on Market Street with art. They call the project “Activate: Market Street”. Jerry Gant’s art fills several storefronts on Market Street right now. Of course, both Aferro and RBH benefit from this partnership: Aferro gets increased exposure, and RBH profits from increased property values.
Boris Bernard, artist and member of Newark artist collective Poor Kingz, poses outside Jerry Gant exhibit on Market Street. Photo by Caroline McCaughey.
The Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD) is another example of the arts driving revitalization in the city. Founded in 2000, the LPCCD is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to transform the once-blighted Lincoln Park neighborhood into an arts and cultural district. The organization has purchased swaths of vacant properties and built sustainable mixed-income residential and commercial units for artists and, mainly, minority-owned businesses. They also host the annual Lincoln Park Music Festival featuring hip-hop, jazz, and house music, and do green jobs training, cultural programming, and urban organic farming.
Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District church façade, where concerts are held and organic vegetables grown. Photo by Caroline McCaughey.
“[We’re] using creative models to deal with economic issues,” explained Josiah Johnson, 26, an artist and native Newark resident who works for LPCCD. “The neighborhood was depleted. Most of the community, the residents, were either low-income or below low-income…As a little kid who grows up in this area, instead of walking around and only seeing crack vials on the ground, they can see art.”
But some Newark artists fear that while they’re making the city more attractive for investment and development now, they’ll soon be priced out, as happened in SoHo and, more recently, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“The city has become more aware of the value that artists bring, so even developers have begun to open up more spaces for galleries, for workshop spaces, for studios for artists throughout the city, “ explained Oglesby. “So we can only hope that that continues. But there is clearly a need for some permanent development spaces for artists to ensure that artists have a long-term future in this city.”
Oglesby’s hopes are rooted in a by-now well accepted theory of urban gentrification: artists make neighborhoods feel more welcoming by renovating and reusing old spaces for studios or dwellings, and investment soon follows. Eventually, rents rise so much that the artists can no longer afford to live there. Creative people are “the storm troopers of gentrification,” explains Steve Englander, director or ABC No Rio, a nonprofit arts space in Manhattan’s once-seedy Lower East Side, where rents now rival some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. So although Newark is actively courting the arts to help reinvent the city, the artists themselves are also trying to stake a claim now to ensure their place in a more prosperous Newark’s future.
“The conversation going on in New York [City] is very relevant here,” said Mahoney. “There are lots of spaces owned by larger scale developers, and I think they see the arts community as an asset in some ways. And they’re trying to utilize the artists to fill the spaces, probably so that they eventually sell them or rent them out at market rates. It’s beneficial to the arts community now, but artists are aware of that.”
Recently, Mahoney held “meet and greets” with mayoral candidates Shavar Jeffries and Ras Baraka at his loft space. “It’s just a conversation,” Mahoney said. But one he wants the next mayor to hear.
Mahoney continued: “Hopefully we can work with the city government or with the developers to perform partnerships that allow Newark to develop in a way that allows for a lasting arts community in greater Newark. Whether that’s possible is yet to be determined.”