Witnessing Newark’s Artistic Renaissance

It was barely an hour past the crack of dawn on June 11, when a bus full of art lovers left the parking lot in Adelphi, Maryland, on a day-long excursion to Newark, New Jersey.

It was the fourth iteration of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Arts Program’s annual art trip.  And, as the bus headed north, Arts Program Director Eric Key, who led the outing, announced that he hoped the group would “roll with the punches.” As it turned out, very little rolling was necessary.

During the course of “Inside Out: Newark’s Artistic Renaissance” tour,  45 attendees―the most participants for a UMUC art tour to date―visited the Newark Museum to preview an exhibit that had not yet opened, were treated to a gallery talk by artist Philemona Williamson’s representative, toured the enormous Mana Contemporary arts center facilities in Jersey City, and spoke with artist Ben Jones in his studio on the third floor of Cornerstone Church of Christ, also in Jersey City.

“It’s always important to look outside one’s walls and to be informed by what is going on around you,” said Jon West-Bey, curator of UMUC’s Arts Program. “Since [the] Arts Program includes work that is of local, national and international significance, it only makes sense to look at places around the country to shape how we think about the arts in the UMUC community.”

A standout from the day’s events for West-Bey, he said, was the immense scale of Mana Contemporary, the former tobacco warehouse turned into visual and performing arts space, which self-identifies on its website as a “transparent, comprehensive hub of creativity.”

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Mana Contemporary – Jersey City

“I think seeing the size of the Mana Contemporary art space and all of the great projects they have under one roof, and hearing about their model to transform and reuse spaces for art, is fascinating,” West-Bey said.

Mana Contemporary’s Jersey City campus is immense―seven buildings on 35 acres, with more than 1 million of its 2.2 million total square feet already developed and integrated into Mana’s active mission as an arts center.

Even so, Sari Levy of Mana Visitor Services told the group that the center is set to expand beyond its Jersey City hub and outposts in Chicago’s Pilsen and Miami’s Wynwood neighborhoods. It envisions locations in Detroit, Los Angeles and London, as well.  “Generally, there’s a lot of construction going on,” she said.

In the neighboring city roughly six miles away, there was a lot of movement in the gallery where staff members were preparing to open the exhibit, “Modern Heroics: 75 Years of African-American Expressionism at the Newark Museum.”

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Exhibit Pre-opening Preview – Newark Museum

“We opened up for you guys,” said Tricia Laughlin Bloom, curator of American art, as she led a preview for the UMUC group a week before the exhibit’s opening. “It’s really a global collection,” Bloom said of the museum. “[It’s] what you would find at the Metropolitan or Brooklyn Museum, but in a much more intimate setting.”

Kimberli Gant, a Mellon curatorial fellow at the museum and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, led a tour of the African section and told the group that the Newark Museum was one of the first museums to have such a department. She paused in front of one of the museum’s thousands of textiles. “It’s one of the strengths of our collection,” she said.

 

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Philemona Williamson’s Studio

At Philemona Williamson’s studio, the artist’s friend, Asa Miraglia, told visitors that Williamson explores “tender moments in life that are mysterious and tentative” in her work. One particularly compelling work responded to the life of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago high school student who was shot and killed just a week after marching with her school’s band in President Obama’s inauguration parade.

A doll in the sobering painting symbolizes childhood, and a rope around the waist of the female figure that’s depicted prevents her from moving to the future, Miraglia explained. She added that blurring the boundaries between adulthood and childhood is one of Williamson’s main focuses, and noted the studio’s “mood wall or inspiration wall” covered with dolls, masks, and all sorts of colorful patterns.

Colorful patterns surrounding troubling content surface, as well, in the work of Ben Jones, whose studio is situated on the third floor of his church. “It’s always a good location in the house of the Lord,” Key said, as the group ascended the staircase.

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Artist Ben Jones (lower right) with UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key

 

Jones, who has visited Cuba more than 70 times and recently learned that the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana will be giving him a solo exhibition, advised the group to travel there. “You need to get to Cuba before the McDonald’s comes,” he said.

His remarks to the group covered a lot of ground. Jones touched on politics. “I’m a Bernie Sanders person; I’m more socialist than he is!”

He spoke of religion. “I don’t want my pastor to know [this.] When people ask me what religion I am, I say, ‘Everything!’”  And, he said, “I swear, in my next life I’ll be a preacher.”

He offered criticism of the way that African-Americans are often depicted in the media. “That’s not most black people I know,” he said.

Also, Jones told the group, in life and art it’s important to pay close attention to history and historical context. “My niece said, ‘Beyoncé is the greatest thing!’ I said, ‘Compared to what?’”