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An Intervention: New Commission Tries to Quell Paterson’s Arts Feud

File photo from Paterson's 2012 Art Walk event


PATERSON, NJ – Make art, not war – that’s what Paterson’s new arts commission is all about.

Tensions in Paterson’s art community began to rise when the Paterson Arts Council (PAC) emerged in 2009. Artists in other groups became upset when PAC was put in charge of the annual Art Walk event and positioned itself for much-sought-after grants. Some local artists accused PAC of soliciting funds and accepting donations before it attained a federal nonprofit status.

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To quell the feuding and close the rift among the different groups, city officials in July created a new arts umbrella group officially known as the Grass Roots Arts Commission (GRAC).  The entity was designed to level the funding playing field and to foster collaborative growth throughout the arts community.

“There’s been a clash of different art enclaves and if you fight battles, nothing gets done so what’s the point?” asked Mayor Jeffery Jones. “This is our intervention.”

This intervention has to come to the city in the form of 17 artists and educators from the grassroots community in Paterson.  In September, Jones appointed 10 commissioners and the city council appointed seven for a one year term based on their backgrounds in the arts. Lewis Cole, a Patersonian with more than 30 years of theater arts under his belt, heads the commission as the appointed chairman.

To Cole, the “grassroots” part of GRAC is an integral part in making their efforts to bring positive change a success.

“Any fundamental movement, not moment, for change has started from the grassroots up,” he said.  “Grassroots movements are more effective, comprehensive and cohesive in meeting the will of the people and the purpose they are striving to meet.”

To be a commissioner, Cole said each member must have at least one year of experience as a professional artist in his or her chosen field and be able to show documents as proof.  He described this first batch of appointees as “renowned within the community” with “loads of credentials.”

As suggested by former councilwoman Vera Ames, the commission includes a subcommittee of 21 students. Five are from Kennedy High School, six are from Rosa Parks High School and 10 are a mix of students from East Side High School and the Jumpstart nonprofit group. These students, selected by Director William Smallwood, will participate in a school-based arts program for youths.

There are also five auxiliary members made up of business folks from the city as well as surrounding towns. These members have no voting power and mainly serve to help the commission with its business plans and proposals. Andre Weeks serves as Cole’s consultant, Phyllis Woods is the commission’s business advisor and Jessie McCaskill is vice chairwoman Rosana Smith’s special assistant.

Once settled, GRAC will issue a directory of all the commissioners and auxiliary members. Once it’s done compiling the information, the directory will be linked on the city’s recreation website and will include each participant’s resume and background information.

GRAC meets every last Monday of the month at the city’s recreation headquarters from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.  Lately, it has been busy structuring a solid framework for the group, creating its bylaws and defining its roles and responsibilities.  Thus far, some of its key duties involve working with the city’s at-risk youth in artistic programs and finding resources and funding for programs in community based arts groups and organizations.

“The work of artists continues to deal with little or no funding and it’s not a good feeling to see another group or groups coming and pulling those resources out and doing little work,” said Cole. “In GRAC, we will be able to better address these types of inequalities in resources for arts programs.”

Cole said PAC was one of the groups getting those resources. He said he thought other arts organizations may have had a problem with that because many of the members were not from Paterson.

Ivanhoe Executive Director Christine Conforti, also GRAC’s secretary, echoed the same sentiment adding GRAC was needed to form a unified body that would look out for the best interest of the community in regards to the arts.

“GRAC is representation of the authentic arts in our community, it represents real people – not PAC,” she added.

Donata Anna, the head of PAC, did not respond to several phone messages and emails seeking her comment for this story.  Joshua Castano, former officer with PAC, declined to comment.

To address the funding issue, Cole said GRAC will be applying for grants with the help of Caesar Lopez of the Community Development Department.  Whatever grant money is obtained will be allotted under GRAC in the city’s budget. GRAC would then make suggestions of how the money should be dispersed to various nonprofit arts organizations. GRAC would screen all applicants and then send the data to the city, which would make the final decision in how much money the selected organizations would receive out of the budget.

But Cole isn’t concerned with funding just yet, or the PAC controversy.  He emphasized that confrontation was not his goal.

“This has to be an open door police. If the mayor and council want to appoint other members, they can and that’s the way it should be if you, as an artist, collectively want to make your statement,” he added.

GRAC is working on making its first statement to the city via a “tone poem,” which is an orchestral composition of different colors that evoke imagery. In a 15-minute video, each GRAC member will show short performance of his or her area of expertise. They include include Cole and member Mark Fischer performing a piece of literature from Joe Turner and Conforti reciting a piece she wrote about the Great Falls. Cole hopes to complete the poem by the end of December so they can use it to introduce themselves to the council and the community.

Native Patersonian and activist, Carl Burrows was invited to be part of GRAC, but declined to join. Burrows, who took part in protests against PAC last summer, was concerned it might just be another PAC.

“I would hope it would be beneficial and that it solves the problem, but there was this all-inclusiveness from the beginning,” said Burrows. “I don’t know if that’s the best way to form a new group that’s replacing a group that was doing the same thing.”

For Commissioner Jim Reilly, also Anna’s ex-husband, GRAC was a “necessary evil.”

“I wish it didn’t have to exist, but I think it’s necessary in giving us a shot to get funding into the arts,” said Reilly.

Cole expected GRAC to be in full swing in about a year and that once that happens, the city’s first arts commission would be sure to leave a lasting impression in the community.

“I want to emphasize that this is not my GRAC or his or her GRAC, but our GRAC. It’s our organization, not just one person,” said Cole. “We want to leave this legacy for many years to come.









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