Newark’s Vibrant Arts and Culture Thrives Amid Challenging Times

BY Fayemi Shakur, City of Newark, Division of Arts and Cultural Affairs

Newark is a city that prides itself on its resilience. From the pandemic to the protests, local artists and cultural organizations joined to provide a sense of hope and creativity like a guiding light. Local artists, residents, students, and faculty from Rutgers Newark’s Graphic Design Program helped paint Black Lives Matter-inspired ground murals. The city’s local arts agency and nonprofit, Newark Arts, worked in tandem with the Division of Arts and Cultural Affairs to provide much-needed information and resources to the sector while advocating for the Arts across the state. The City of Newark responded to individual artists’ needs and small to midsize arts groups by creating The Creative Catalyst Fund, providing $750,000 in grants to 120 awardees, and continued working with local muralists to beautify and energize Newark’s neighborhoods and public spaces.

“At every turn, the Mayor is touting the importance of art—especially public art—in how we re-imagine Newark as a city for all people,” said Newark Arts Executive Director Jeremy Johnson. “The pandemic, despite the real financial and public health issues, has also created opportunities for artists to grow in and beyond Newark.”

In addition to an annual allocation of funding for individual artists and arts groups, at the State of the City address, the Mayor announced the city would commission a statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman to replace the Christopher Columbus statue recently removed from Washington Park. Additionally, he said the park would be renamed Tubman Square.

The City’s arts initiatives are informed by Newark Creates, a collaborative plan organized by Newark Arts in 2018. The 18-month-long planning process included community members, nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental stakeholders. The culminating report and collaborative plan support civic, social, and economic growth via its goal to advance an equitable foundation for a thriving arts and culture sector. It is a marked time of both progression and challenge for Newark, a “City of the Arts.”

“While the current climate is undoubtedly the most difficult in decades, ultimately we know a strong arts community will be a way to come together again after this period of isolation and stress,” said Linda Harrison, Newark Museum of Art CEO/president. Harrison decided to close the Museum until 2021 but embarked on a series of expanded virtual programming, #NMOAatHome—discussions, virtual gallery tours, workshops, social events, and virtual creative play activities for a broad audience. Looking ahead to 2021, the Museum will welcome the New Jersey Arts Annual and host an exciting celebration of the Garden State’s robust creative community. “Every day, I am reminded of the essential role the arts play in fueling economic growth and in creating a deep sense of place in every corner of the country,” Harrison said. “As culture workers, we are also providing a degree of

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center also pivoted to virtual programming and was among the first to announce the venue would remain closed until 2021. “We were obligated to restructure our budget, undergo significant pay cuts, furloughs, and staff layoffs, but we are confident we will be here when the pandemic passes,” said NJPAC CEO John Schreiber. “We’re trying to stay present, useful, and creative. Though we can’t work in traditional ways, we can enhance our digital content and create life-affirming programming for our audiences.”

NJPAC ramped up its online presence with a slew of panel discussions ranging from social justice to artist entrepreneurs, through their Community Engagement programming series. In partnership with PSEG, NJPAC also offers its True Diversity Film Series, which pairs thought-provoking films with post-film talkbacks and much more. Every week a wide range of virtual programming is provided on their website and social media platforms.

Meanwhile, Newark Symphony Hall was approved for a $750,000 grant from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund to renovate and restore the 95-year-old landmark venue. Executive Director Taneshia Nash Laird created a committee of Black-led, millennial-aged professionals—an essential step toward ensuring the organization’s longevity and sustainability. The seven members of the committee; who hail from notable companies including Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and AllianceBernstein, among others; will be asked to help the venue achieve fundraising milestones—including the first phase of a $40 million renovation slated for 2021. Laird said the committee’s formation comes as the venue shifts to a framework centered around the creation of opportunities for local performing artists and creators of color.

Akwaaba Gallery owner Laura Palmer agrees that supporting local artists and arts and culture is where the joy is. Located in Newark’s West Ward, Palmer opted to reopen, limiting in-person gatherings to a reduced capacity during COVID-19 and developing virtual exhibitions as well. Investing in renovations of the property to create an outdoor lounge area helped, too. “People are purchasing art despite what’s happening, and artists are excited about showing their work. People were really grateful we were open. They felt trapped like there was nothing to do,” Palmer said. “Art is extremely important. You really can’t do this without the support of the community. At a time when everything seems to be going wrong, experiencing art brings a sense of normalcy to everything that’s happening.”

As Mayor Ras J. Baraka has assured, “Newark is a ‘City of the Arts,’ where access to spoken-word events, musical and dance performances, film, art exhibits, theater offerings, museums, and libraries add exponentially to our economic health. We will continue elevating art and creativity for our beloved city.”