How we see us: Women’s perspectives in a vibrant Newark arts scene

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In Newark, New Jersey, an artistic tidal shift is happening.

Most recently named as the seventh most vibrant arts city in the annual report by the National Center for the Arts at Southern Methodist University, Newark, New Jersey recently celebrated the “Year Of The Woman” during its yearly arts fête, Newark Arts’ Festival.  For the first-time, the curation of Newark Arts Festival (formerly Open Doors) was led by a woman, Adrienne Wheeler, a Newark-based multimedia artist and arts educator. 

Wheeler presented a team of women curators who assembled magnificent exhibitions. Cheryl Mack, Kween Moore, Atim Annette Oton, Armisey Smith, and Mary Valverde showed how women in Newark have created their own art spaces absent of the male gaze.  

Newark Arts Festival this year carried the theme, “Year of the Woman.”

Off the Hanger, luxury fashion and home decor Studio.

Clients and fans of Off the Hanger, a boutique shop in Newark, take selfies at fashion studio.

P.O.O.R. KINGZ A.R.T. exhibition.

Spread Spectrum Opening Reception and Dance Party, curated by Armisey Smith. Featured Artists: Sybil Archibald, Anonda Bell, Caren King Choi, Joan Cummings, Maria Luis Estrela, Donna Conklin King, Sarah Langsam, Beverly A. McCutcheon, Ruth Neustadter, Nell Painter, Luisa F. Pinzon Romero, Theda Sandiford, Danielle Scott, Ameerah Shabazz, April Tracey, Mary Young. The exhibition looks at the works of women artists via a spectrum of realistic and abstract fine art. The works collectively reflect perspectives of high self-efficacy, internal and external loci of control through content and purpose. The art was curated to explore, and present themes related to the experiences of women’s lives.

Armisey Smith curated, Spread Spectrum’s ‘A Modulation of Women Artists Speaks,’ exhibition. The exhibition looks at the works of women artists via a spectrum of realistic and abstract fine art. The works collectively reflect perspectives of high self-efficacy, internal and external loci of control through content and purpose. The art was curated to explore, and present themes related to the experiences of women’s lives.

Artist, Joshua Fennell was featured in the exhibition, Women’s Narratives: Brick City Blues.

Artist Atim Annette Oton curated the exhibition, Women’s Narratives: Brick City Blues, which was an ode to, a celebration, a challenge and a questioning of women’s narratives in the context of a racial, socioeconomic and political paradigm shift of the body.

Four Corners Public Arts project will open November 19, 2019.

Downtown Newark’s latest art project, pays ode to its first intersection, the four corners.

Four Corners art project.

Let’s be clear, I’m excited about the recent awarding of the curation of Phase I of the Four Corners Public Arts project to Rebecca Jampol, co-director of Project For Empty Space.  Jampol curated the 1.3 mile long Gateways to Newark: Portraits along McCarter Highway in 2017.

The large scale Four Corners Public Arts project, which officially debuts Tuesday, November 19, at 5 p.m. at the corners of William Street and Treat Place, is a major coup for women’s art leadership in Newark.  However, what the 2019 Newark Arts Festival demonstrated, is what diversity and inclusion can really look like when women of color are even considered; given funding; and access to lead more high profile, big budget contracts and opportunities.

As a stop-gap, Newark Arts’, executive director, Jeremy Johnson, galvanized developers to secure hard-to-get spaces for local artists who were able to showcase their work at this year’s fest.  States Johnson:

“Newark Arts Festival is strategic to our mission to support a vibrant cultural ecosystem, drive strong economic growth, and conduct cultural advocacy.  By partnering with five downtown developers that lent space to seven one-of-a-kind pop-up galleries, we were able to generate artistic, educational, social, civic and economic activity that transformed Newark’s cityscape.  These efforts highlight both the space and talent assets in our city, and hopefully shine a light on the possibilities for growth moving forward.” 

During the festival, empty storefronts along Halsey Street, Broad Street, Commerce Street and Raymond Boulevard were alive with the arts creating a walkable festival experience.  Vacant lots in new residential developments such as One Theater Square and Walker House and established art spaces such as women led Gallery Aferro; Paul Robeson Gallery at Express Newark; and RyArMo Photography Gallery hosted “spotlight” shows and brunches that honored women. 

Since 2016, the reported $2 billion in development in downtown Newark has caused a shift in the topography of the city’s skyline, spurning what’s being called another “revival” of sorts.  Similarly, there has been an artistic tidal shift happening in the city. Thankfully, some women are transitioning into leadership positions within institutional arts spaces such as Newark Symphony Hall’s Taneisha Nash Laird and Newark Museum hiring Linda Harrison as its first Black woman CEO in its 110 year history.  

However, with the disappearance of arts spaces and a lack of women owned galleries, grassroots collectives have turned to creating their own diverse artistic collaboratives. As Femme Curator Arts founder and producer of the 2019 exhibition, Black & Brown: An Unparalleled Truth, Moore, stated: 

“We have a chance now to stand in our power, and have the decision to make a choice creatively in how our community is being seen, what type of art we have, what type of moments we share.  Black and Brown women need to be not only creating the table, because we have been the table for so long with so many things placed on our backs. It’s time the scene reflects our level of knowledge in the creative process.” 

Based on this year’s amazing Newark Arts Festival celebration, I remain hopeful that Black women, and women of color, be entrusted with the keys to premium spaces to present art, empowered with larger curatorial budgets and gain access to the bidding process for major public arts projects.  Until then, I can’t wait for the next, delicious art-infused course.

Kim J. Ford is a writer, content creator, founder of #SayHerNameNewark multimedia social justice art initiative, member of Newark Women’s Writers Workshop and ardent supporter of the arts, music and culture.

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