Newark Arts Scene

Black Music, Art, and Artistic Expression Move the City Forward

By Devonne Campbell

Newark Arts, internationally-recognized for its award-winning annual Newark Arts Festival, is an organization at the origin and forefront of art culture in New Jersey’s “hustle headquarters.” It has been championing, amplifying, and cultivating the cultural necessity of artistic expression since 1981.

“With a Black and Latino population of more than 70%, Newark has a long and rich arts history. It boasts decades of creativity, producing artists such as Sarah Vaughan, Whitney Houston, Willie Cole, Chakaia Booker, Queen Latifah, and Amiri Baraka,” says Newark Arts Director of Marketing & Artistic Initiatives Lauren M. Craig, Esq.

Beyond its signature of industry and economy, beauty and innovation, Newark has been at the center of many art movements and home to some of the most important Black activists and culture creators.

The late Gerry Gant was a prolific visual artist, poet, performance artist and educator. Born in Newark Gant worked on murals across every ward in the city. Commissioned to create a number of public sculptures, 13 of them reside in Nat Turner Park.

Newark artist
Gerry Gant poses
with his sculpture

Linda Street of Pink Dragon Artist Syndicate, Gant’s lifelong friend whom he entrusted to handle his life’s work and legacy manages his estate. This summer, via a newly developed app, visitors can take a virtual tour of the permanent installation of Gant’s iconic sculptures. Nat Turner Park is where the iconic “The Bluesman” piece resides. Ralph Andre of Mean Genius is creator of the app; director Kay the Creator under the creative oversight of Street’s Pink Dragon Artist Syndicate will provide the photographs.

“That was one of the first public art projects we worked on together. That work was installed in Nat Turner Park in 2009.” Street explained. “It’s such perfect timing because the narrative of this work, which is installed at each of the park’s five entrances, speaks to Nat Turner, slavery, and the origins of music as it relates to the African-American influence.”

In September, Street will curate a solo exhibition of Gant’s work at Paul Robeson Gallery at Express Newark. “We’re really excited about a couple of the installations in the exhibition that have a very clear focus on music,” said Street. “That was a recurring narrative throughout most of Gerry’s work—whether it’s sculpture, painting, or graffiti art—there was a musical theme.” Following that, Gant’s work will be included in a group show focusing on street art at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. Afterward, the collection will be stored in the old Star Ledger building near the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

“In recent decades, community arts organizations have suffered,” said Craig. “Many residents seek arts access in their neighborhoods. In-community, smaller-budget, women-led, Black and Brown-led arts organizations and programs often lack resources—a key reason Newark Arts provides mini grants through its ArtStart program to such organizations.” Newark Arts continuously uses their platforms to emphasize the value and importance of making space for art, funding arts education, and supporting artist entrepreneurship as a means of elevating the city.

In 40 years of advocacy and empowerment of the arts, Newark Arts has done more than simply provide performance platforms for its homegrown artists. “In terms of historically Black enclaves and spaces, we seek to promote their history in not only the context of the city, but their importance to the arts nationally,” said Craig.

The organization collaborates with the City of Newark in various ways to restore and revitalize historic areas of Newark by way of arts and culture to “make the area vibrant again.” Newark Arts, Newark Symphony Hall, and the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District have partnered to form the “Lincoln Park Alliance,” an initiative with the focus of reactivating and restoring the health of one of New Jersey’s only historically Black cultural districts. While making space for all kinds of history to take place, Newark Arts commits to honoring the legacy of their residents’ culture—past, present and future.

Further emphasizing the benefits of collaboration and community engagement through art and their mission to “power the arts to transform lives,” Newark Arts’ Arts Ed Newark brings arts education to Newark communities for children pre-K-12 and “provides professional development for artist educators in trauma-informed care, a growing area of practice for Newark youth.”

Newark Arts wholeheartedly understands the importance of investing in its communities of color, creating opportunity for its patrons and residents, and a hub of innovation and minority leadership by which everyone can be inspired. If you’re looking for a space to explore and celebrate the creative life of our beautiful city, look no further than Newark Arts.

Newark has been at the center of many art movements and home to some of the most important Black Activists and culture creators: Amiri Baraka and the Black Power Movement, playwright Richard Wesley, the iconic Whitney Houston, and Hip-Hop’s Queen of Community Queen Latifah. In the visual arts medium, Newark’s history of Black Music is palpable in the works of Akintola Hanif (Hycide), fayemi shakur (Womb of Violent), the legendary Gladys Barker Guarer, Adrienne Wheeler, The Land Collective, Malcolm Rolling, RED, the late “Mural King” Rodney M. Gilbert, and the late visual artist, poet, performance artist and educator Jerry Gant.

Devonne Campbell (Sophia’s Daughter) is a Haitian-American writer, performance artist, organizer, and flower child based in Newark, NJ. She has a mission to enlighten, inform, empower, and reconnect humanity to its humanity. You can find her work @Itssophiasdaughter on IG.

Violinist Bri Blvck