Last October, when the City Without Walls art gallery became the star of the city’s annual arts festival by mounting a visual arts exhibit of nationally known artists whose work paid tribute to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, few people knew the gallery was on life support.
By all accounts, it was triumphant moment. The opening reception was packed, demonstrating how much for colored girls, a performance piece that tells the stories of the lives of seven fictional black women through dance, music and poetry, continues to resonate with audiences more than 40 years after it was first produced on Broadway. Adding to the experience was an appearance by Shange herself. Even the mayor’s mother, Amina Baraka, the widow of the late poet Amiri Baraka (and a poet and dancer in her own right), came, and, in a striking gesture, sat at that author’s feet, hugging Shange, a longtime friend.
But what people didn’t know was that in a matter of weeks City Without Walls, until then the oldest existing alternative gallery in Newark, would close its doors and start preparing to file for bankruptcy.
i found god in myself: a celebration of Dr. Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls at City Without Walls, October 14, 2017. Source: Facebook
For some, the loss of the gallery has been interpreted as a worrisome tremor in the city’s arts landscape, part of a familiar narrative about artists being displaced by gentrification. But Jeremy Johnson, executive director of Newark Arts, the city’s arts council, says those fears are misplaced.
Sad as the loss of City Without Walls may be, Johnson says he is hopeful the non-profit will soon be reincarnated in what he affectionately calls “cWOW 2.0.’’
The bottom line: “I am optimistic that Newark will come up with a different kind of equitable narrative where artists and arts organizations – anchor institutions and neighborhood programs alike – will make Newark a model for the country. We are a work in progress.’’
Johnson said his belief that such an outcome is possible is bolstered by his confidence in the city’s first-ever cultural plan, which will be unveiled at the end of the month, and his belief that the city can take advantage of the $4 billion in construction in the city to leverage opportunities for artists.
Still, the tectonic plates are shifting, especially downtown, and whether the city can, as Johnson hopes, chart a course that controls the outcome, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the story of City Without Walls– or cWOW as many like to call it — offers a window into the kinds of issues the city will have to wrestle with in order to create a climate that will keep the small arts organizations that give Newark its vibrancy alive.
More often than not, these small organizations depend on the largesse of landlords (in Newark, that’s usually developers who charge low rents in order to have tenants in what would otherwise be empty buildings) and they must also compete for funding with other non-profits for a limited number of grants from governmental entities and philanthropic foundations.
That definitely was true of cWOW. The non-profit closed its doors in November because it ran out of money, said Michelle Sainte, an associate dean at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City who serves as the chair of the organization’s board.
‘’It’s with regret and heavy hearts,’’ she said. ‘’There is an emotional toll that closing these doors is making, and we are all feeling it. ‘’
Sainte praised the gallery’s then-executive director, fayemi shakur, who worked hard last summer to try to forge an alliance with neighborhood groups in Lincoln Park like Symphony Hall and the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District to stitch together a plan to keep cWOW open. But Sainte said cWOWs problems began well before shakur started at cWOW in September 2016 (shakur will begin teaching a contemporary art course at Rutgers-Newark in the fall). It soon became clear that last summer’s efforts to work with the city to come up with a solution didn’t fit into the gallery’s timetable.
The cWOW story
Founded in 1975, the organization began its life when the city was still in a downward spiral following the 1967 unrest. Back then, the only other community gallery in Newark was on the city’s south side, and run by Gladys Grauer, a longtime Newark artist who turns 95 this August. Her gallery had a four-year run, and, along with City Without Walls, helped lay the groundwork for Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 1983.
In its early days, cWOW was based out of an abandoned Benedictine monastery on Shipman Street. Its members – all artists in their 20s — focused their attention on organizing art and theater workshops for school children and adults, according to a 1976 article about the group that was published in The New York Times. An important early supporter was the Rev. Edwin Leahy, headmaster of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. “They’re really very talented people and we feel lucky and happy to have them with us,” Leahy was quoted as saying in the article. “They have a very good sense of what they are capable of doing and our kids have benefited from them already. It’s a very classy operation and, needless to say, we are very pleased to have them here.”
Over the years, people came and went, but the organization continued to build its reputation by mounting themed group shows that were regularly reviewed by The New York Times and The Star-Ledger; a mentoring program that teamed up artists with talented high school students known as ArtReach, and a city-wide mural program that gave new life to the exteriors of many old buildings all around the city.
Paul Belfanti, a Rhode Island School of Design-trained painter who joined the board in 1986 and served as its chair from 2003-2015, said he was especially proud of ArtReach, which he co-founded with the late Eleta Caldwell, a board member, artist and principal at Arts High School, in 1992. Belfanti said he loved going to year-end ArtReach shows held every June featuring the work of the mentor-mentee pairs.
The event would draw teachers, parents, grandparents, and sometimes even the mayor. “It was this hip art opening, and it was like a high school graduation at the same time,’’ Belfanti said. “Everybody was there.’’
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Financial worries have always been an issue for the organization, said Belfanti, who has the distinction of being the longest-serving board member in the non-profit’s history.
Though he is no longer on the board, Belfanti said the gallery was hard hit by the 2008 recession. Not only were there fewer grants to be had, “there was a shift towards directing those limited funds to larger entities (i.e. Newark Museum, NJPAC) and social programs, with smaller arts entities viewed as less measurably impactful,’’ he said.
According to Sainte, another challenge came about three years ago when the Prudential Foundation, always a reliable and generous supporter, changed its funding strategy for arts organizations in the city and gradually diminished its support. The loss amounted to $60,000, half of the organization’s annual budget, she said. (Other major revenues came from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, she said.)
“That was huge, and I don’t think any of us were prepared for what would happen when that funding source dried up,’’ Sainte said.
Nor is cWOW alone in facing such funding challenges.
According to a July 2017 study by the Helicon Collaborative, an organization devoted to facilitating cultural arts program design, management and analysis, large cultural organizations across the country have seen increase in funding over the last ten years, but smaller organizations are getting a smaller piece of the pie.
Specifically, the study found that “the distribution of arts funding nationally is actually getting more concentrated in the hands of the institutions that already have the most resources. Just 2 percent of all cultural institutions receive nearly 60 percent of all contributed revenue, up approximately 5 percentage points over a decade.‘’
In an email, Holly Sidford, one of the researchers for the report, said she didn’t have specific numbers for Newark, but noted: “I feel confident saying that the overall patterns we describe in this report likely apply universally.‘’
Prudential’s changing strategy
There’s no question Prudential, the insurance company founded by Newark resident John Dryden in 1875, is an important philanthropic player on the local scene. In the last ten years alone, the company has donated $1 billion to the city’s revitalization, according to a recent company press release.
In the last three years, the company has changed its giving strategy in order to have “a greater catalytic impact’’ on the city’s arts community, said Caitrin O’Sullivan, director of Global Communications for Prudential Financial. As a result, the company has shifted it focus “to strengthen intermediary organizations and build the capacity of local nonprofit and arts organizations to better serve Newark residents today and in the future,’’ she said.
O’Sullivan pointed to Prudential’s collaborations with the city and other anchor institutions to help create art and cultural spaces, specifically Military Park; the “art wall’’ in the Fairmount neighborhood that was built to create a visual shield around the PSE&G McCarter Switching Station; Express Newark, the arts incubator run by Rutgers-Newark in the newly refurbished Hahne’s building downtown; and current efforts to transform the old St. Michael’s building, a vacant, 88,000 square-foot former hospital a stone’s throw from NJIT and Rutgers’ campuses, into an arts and cultural incubator for non-profits and schools.
In addition, she noted, Prudential recently awarded a $500,000 grant to Newark Arts so that it can serve as a conduit for funding small and emerging neighborhood groups throughout the city as part of its ArtStart program. Johnson said the first of the ArtStart grants, $51,000 worth, will be announced tomorrow, and the remainder of the money will be doled out over four years.
That, said Johnson, is what he finds particularly exciting. It will enable the number of ArtStart grants to double from 10 to 19.
“Newark’s population is more than 70 percent black and brown,’’ Johnson said. “Those artists and organizations who are embedded in our communities will be better able to thrive as a result of more neighborhood-focused grantmaking.’’
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Also on the horizon is the unveiling of Newark Creates, the city’s first-ever arts and cultural plan, set for July 27. The plan, which is the culmination of 18 months of study, is expected to outline ways to support the arts in neighborhoods beyond downtown and also to establish a blueprint for making strategic use of public spaces and city-owned properties.
It will also highlight how the arts and real estate intersect, especially in Newark. It’s no secret the city sees the arts as an important community development tool, and the unveiling of the arts plan is set to take place during the annual Lincoln Park Music Festival in an intentional effort to put a spotlight on Lincoln Park, a neighborhood on the edge of downtown that is populated with historic homes and is known for its legacy as a hub for black entertainment during first half of the 20th century.
Perhaps inevitably, that will also put the spotlight on City Without Walls, which for the last 13 years made its home in Lincoln Park in a one-story building at 6 Crawford Street. Now, as city officials strategize for ways to attract developers who will help the neighborhood reach a tipping point, re-establishing a community gallery in the neighborhood is a priority. Johnson said the city is working with public and private partners to seed a cWOW 2.0 that will pave the way for the original City Without Walls to continue “to live on in spirit’’ in Lincoln Park.
To quote Johnson: “Stay tuned.’’
Correction: An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information about a $500,000 grant Newark Arts, the city’s arts council, received from Prudential. The money will be spent over the course of four years, according to the council’s executive director, Jeremy Johnson. The first set of grants ($51,000) will be announced tomorrow.
Miriam Ascarelli is a lecturer in the Humanities Dept. at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she teaches journalism and composition and has come to love Newark and all its history, grittiness, hope and resiliency. Prior to teaching, she worked as a reporter and editor at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, the City News Bureau of Chicago and other newspapers in the Midwest. She lives in Glen Ridge with her husband, Jim, two teen-age daughters and three cats.
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