Jerry Gant was already well-known around Newark, New Jersey, as a sculptor, muralist, and spoken-poetry artist, when he found out what was going on upstairs at 31 Central Avenue. Born and raised in Newark, he knew the two-story edifice for its mishmash of shabby storefronts, including a Chinese restaurant, a detox center, and a storage space for Italian-ice carts.
It was 2002. Newark’s downtown, once the seat of great wealth, had been derelict for decades. The spiraling combination of manufacturing decline, disinvestment, and suburban flight had started after World War II. It continued after the 1967 riots, or rebellion, when protests against police violence led to repression by state police and the National Guard, leaving 26 dead and a trail of damage and looting. The decline had left factories, warehouses, and office buildings, including pre-war architectural gems, underutilized or abandoned. Gradually, artists had found their way to some of the empty buildings. Some set up illegally. Others made deals with landlords simply eager to have an occupant. At 31 Central, artists had reclaimed the upstairs suites, paying minimal rent for large spaces.
That year, artists in various buildings banded together to hold a studio tour. It was titled Open Doors, and coordinated by the city’s arts council, it helped spark a revival in Newark’s art scene that is exploding all these years later. “Artists really did the labor,” says Matt Gosser, an architect and curator who came to the city to study at Rutgers-Newark in 1992 and stayed. “They fixed up all these raw spaces and put art in them.” The event sparked new encounters, especially between some of the more recent arrivals and longtime Newarkers like Gant, who finally got a look at 31 Central’s upper floor. “It was always a door closed where you had no access,” Gant says. “I was like, ‘Oh — you’re all up in this space!’ ”
Today, downtown Newark has a dramatically new energy. After years of effort by successive mayors — Sharpe James, Cory Booker, Ras Baraka — and thanks to copious tax incentives for corporations investing in the city, construction is booming. Panasonic’s headquarters (built in 2013, the first new office building in twenty years) and longtime anchor Prudential Financial’s new glass towers (built in 2015) have joined the skyline. Luxury condos are rising across from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The Hahne’s building, a department store shuttered in 1987, reopened this year with apartments, retail, and a Rutgers-led arts complex called Express Newark. The building boasts a Whole Foods, with a restaurant to follow soon by Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster fame.
Suburbanites still stream out of Newark at 5 p.m., but a web of restaurants, bars, and housing is rolling back downtown’s louche feel. When Lauren Craig, a city arts advocate and author of the new book 100 Things to Do in Newark Before You Die (from “Celebrate the Season at Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart” to “Switch Up Your Hairstyle During a Wig Shopping Excursion”), attended law school at Rutgers-Newark fifteen years ago, students were constantly fed dire warnings. “They would send emails: Be careful, someone just got robbed on Halsey Street,” she says. “But now that’s where I live. That’s where everything’s popping!”
As Newark has found momentum, arts have been a big part of the city’s self-narration, the new brand. At Newark Arts, the city’s arts council, executive director Jeremy Johnson proudly cites two recent national studies that attest to the arts-fueled energy, at least in aggregate. According to Americans for the Arts, Newark accounts for one-third of all dollars spent by organizations and audiences in the nonprofit arts sector in New Jersey — although the mammoth NJPAC probably dominates this figure. And a Southern Methodist University survey ranks Newark as the nation’s ninth-most “arts-vibrant” metropolitan area, though this refers not just to the city, but to a six-county area that stretches into Pennsylvania.
The evolution of Open Doors, which holds its sixteenth edition this week, supports that sense of dynamism. The event has transformed into a four-day extravaganza with some seventy listed activities. At NJIT, Newark-raised sculptor Willie Cole is showing new work in his signature voice, making mystical patterns from reclaimed consumer objects, along with little-known early illustration pieces. Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, a nationally known nonprofit founded in 1983, presents “The Missing,” a project on the toll of mass incarceration by Brooklyn-based installation artist Duron Jackson, that will extend in future weeks to public projects in the Newark community. Wardell Milan’s mixed-media drawings, collage, and portraiture are showing at Project for Empty Space. Gallery Aferro presents a show by Dominique Duroseau, a Haiti-raised, Newark-based artist whose critical work around gender and race employs sculpture, installation, and participatory performance. Fresh from museum presentations in Philadelphia and Houston, a group show of works that respond to Ntozake Shange’s classic for colored girls… is opening at the community nonprofit City Without Walls, with Shange in attendance at the opening. A host of pop-up exhibits, concerts, and mural tours await those with the stamina — there are even official bar crawls. Plus the open studios: More than one hundred artists in six complexes welcome visitors on Sunday.
Rebecca Jampol and Jasmine Wahi, co-directors of Project for Empty Space, have their own qualitative measure of Newark’s art buzz. “We don’t have to coerce people to come anymore,” Wahi says. “They’re excited to come here.” In 2013, the two began organizing exhibitions in a former cubicle farm — once occupied by an architecture firm felled by the Great Recession — in the Gateway Center, a complex right next to Newark’s Penn Station. A kind of indoor mall traverses these buildings, which are connected to one another and to the station by enclosed walkways; the idea, when the complex was built in the 1970s, was for commuters to be able to work in Newark with no need to set foot on its streets.
Plugged into the New York scene, Wahi and Jampol held shows featuring rising, well-regarded artists — David Antonio Cruz, Chitra Ganesh, Saya Woolfalk — who were often on the radar of curators and critics. But getting that audience demographic to Newark was an issue, despite the gallery being virtually in the train station, with its direct PATH line that puts lower Manhattan just 25 minutes away. They had to hire vans to fetch the art crowd in Chelsea. “We had to shuttle people from New York to come take a look at what was here,” Jampol says.
The van is no longer necessary. “Now we have an audience that takes their own initiative,” Wahi says. Gateway Project Spaces, the studio complex the duo opened in 2015, adjacent and beneath their gallery, has drawn artists from New York City as well, who were attracted by rates that Jampol estimates at one-third of those in Bushwick. For some, the commute is an experiment in prelude to a long-term move. Newark’s cachet extends, Jampol and Wahi found, to the art-fair circuit. Last year at Pulse Art Fair in Miami Beach, their booth attracted fans of the city, keen to share a Newark connection. “People would come by and go: ‘Newark! Yes!’ ” Jampol says. “Which I find wonderful. That’s how it should be.”
“I think it’s high time,” says Ras Baraka, Newark’s mayor. “Newark’s been heavy in the arts for a long time. It’s time we got the word out.”
Unusual among big-city mayors, Baraka identifies as an artist — specifically, a poet. He can reel off the local arts pantheon — Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, Philip Roth, Whitney Houston, Savion Glover, and so on — but he has personal ties to many undersung local artists who held on during the tough years. Most of all, of course, he grew up ensconced in Newark’s tradition of art and radical politics, as the son of poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka, and of Amina Baraka, a poet and actress in her own right.
If the mayor is worried about hordes of invading artists, he doesn’t show it. “I think we have space,” Baraka says. “Newark used to have half a million people, now we have three hundred thousand. We want progressives, artists, to come out here. Newark should be the place to be for artists. And I want Newarkers to benefit from their presence.”
Yet how art will factor in Newark’s next phase is up for grabs. Downtown, each blast of development money winnows further the raw spaces where artists work or live cheap. The main new arts investment downtown, Express Newark, is controlled by Rutgers and now hosts the university’s Paul Robeson Galleries. For other tenants in the area, such as the Newark Print Shop, a community-minded venture with a D.I.Y. background, the gleaming new space is a physical upgrade but a major shift in atmosphere.
“It’s very much the end of an era,” says Lowell Craig, director of Index Art Center, a roughhewn space currently in a rambling building on Washington Street. Craig was a denizen of 31 Central as far back as 1998; every year, for Open Doors, he has organized a show featuring the artists of both spaces. But 31 Central recently got sold; now Index’s landlord has hinted that time may soon be up. “I wonder if there are any more big lofts left,” Craig says, listing warehouses of yesteryear. A few endure in the Ironbound, he thinks, but they keep a low profile. “They don’t put themselves on the Open Doors list.”
Nearby, Gallery Aferro is keeping up the good fight. Emma Wilcox and Evonne M. Davis started the nonprofit in 2003 and landed three years later in a vast building on Market Street, surrounded by storefronts that remain unused today. Their programs have a resolute focus on socially engaged art practices, and they keep their artist spaces, which they allot selectively, ultra-cheap. “The operation is held together by individual donors, grants, and the grace of some god,” says Wilcox. She is not too worried about Aferro’s survival in its location — they have a good understanding with the building owners — but is concerned about the bigger picture. “We’re really thinking about how you keep the arts downtown,” Wilcox says. “I feel like the thing that doesn’t get said is that if you keep the arts downtown, it actually helps you serve folks in the outer neighborhoods better.”
The rest of Newark — a city where one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, where its residents hold only 18 percent of jobs in the city, and only 10 percent of jobs that pay more than $40,000 per year — shadows the art scene as it does every other sector that has helped drive the downtown renewal. The Baraka administration is pressing housing and jobs initiatives to narrow the gap; this year it agreed to a jobs-for-Newarkers plan with the major employers, and passed citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning for new housing developments. Arts policy, despite scattered initiatives, is understandably a lower priority. But some in the arts community are advancing their own approaches.
Last year, Aferro launched a mobile photo studio, making professional portraits of hundreds of Newarkers. “Our mandate was to only go where we were invited,” Wilcox says. “You relinquish control, and you get drawn more and more into the community.”
The gallery also held an exhibition about Kea’s Ark, a massive boat that a reclusive artist named Kea Tawana built (and inhabited) on a vacant lot in the 1980s. The ark stood for five years, attracting comparisons to Watts Towers, before the city deemed it an eyesore and condemned it in 1987. The enigmatic Tawana dismantled it and every trace of the Ark and its builder vanished. “The best part was seeing people’s pride that their local lore belonged in history,” Wilcox says of the show. “The hardest part was seeing how erasure functions.”
Newark’s art history needs wider broadcasting, particularly for the city’s own people, says Gant, now 55. His own work is splashed around town in elegant murals, often augmented by uplifting messages in graffiti-art script. And seventeen artists, representing the range of Newark’s art-mural tradition, have made a new series that stretches 1.4 miles along the railroad tracks that cut through the city. But young Newarkers lack exposure to more, Gant says. “They may know Jerry Gant because of the murals, but as far as more sculptural things, there’s no tours of the canon that’s here.”
Sculptors Cole, Chakaia Booker, and Kevin Sampson, all in their sixties, have national reputations but are little-known to youth in their hometown. The painter and mixed-media artist Gladys Barker Grauer, 94, opened a community gallery in the Central Ward in 1971, setting the tone for successors like Aljira twelve years later, yet her story is barely documented. Gant says the city should acquire a permanent collection of Newark artists. “When we all make our transitions, where does our body of work go?”
At City Without Walls, a community gallery founded in the 1970s, executive director Fayemi Shakur points to self-reliance as Newark’s cardinal value. The gallery is near Lincoln Park, south of downtown, in an area that was long ago a jazz and nightlife hub. Twelve years ago it was blighted, Shakur says. “It was brownfields and abandoned lots.” Now there is an annual music festival, Savion Glover’s tap academy, a neighborhood organic farm, and volunteer cleanups. “The ‘do it yourself, take care, take pride in your neighborhood’ is what we need, so that some of this fear of displacement can be erased.”
Shakur says Newark can innovate in putting art practice to community good, in the manner of Project Row Houses in Houston or Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation in Chicago. “We need to start thinking about the impact we can have as a model across the nation, not just Newark,” she says. “Because there’s greatness happening here.”
Open Doors 2017 takes place October 12 through 15, in Newark, New Jersey (multiple locations). Information at newarkarts.org/opendoors