CAMDEN, NJ — Collaboration. It will be the guiding light for the Camden community as it looks to address a controversial mosaic frieze on the Rutgers-Camden campus this fall. 

In June, the university said it would obscure the frieze (entitled “America Receiving the Gifts of a Nation") because it depicts intolerant values. The artwork, located on the Johnson Library building in Johnson Park, includes images of Christopher Columbus and indigenous peoples called "racist" by Cooper Grant residents and others in the city. 

Shortly after the school announced the move, some from the community were critical - saying locals should be able to properly contextualize the piece.

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On Monday, the Institute for the Development of Education in the Arts (IDEA) was awarded a $50,000 community voices grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation to support projects with Rutgers students and faculty that tackles “the problematic frieze.”

“I think taking this step gives everybody a voice, particularly those who have been left out of the conversation,” Executive Director and Founder of the IDEA center, Cynthia Primas, told TAPinto Camden. “We hope to bring everyone in the city together, including the Native American community, to discuss the frieze and what approach we can take going forward."

Professor Jim Brown, associate professor of English and the Director of Digital Studies Center at the university, has also played a role in the collaboration, Primas said. 

The IDEA arts center opened in downtown roughly three weeks ago, but has been unable to host a grand opening due to the ongoing health crisis. 

What exactly will result from the initiative has yet to be seen but Primas and Jonathan Latko, President of the Cooper-Grant Neighborhood Association, say everything will be considered including multimedia elements both visual and audio. 

“I think we have a [chance] to present learning opportunities and put things into context,” Latko said over the phone. “Everyone has their own lens they see life through but, along with the academic community, I think there’s a way to ground the conversation.”

Latko hopes the collaboration will also help reinforce the open feel of the park wherein the frieze is located.

“Our fear overtime has been that these public spaces are annexed and controlled by the institution, so we really think its important we recognize these as public spaces,” he added.

Mike Sepanic, spokesperson for Rutgers-Camden, said in the next week or so the university will have created a committee that will address issues surrounding monuments on campus, including the Walt Whitman statue in front of the student center.

There were no updates on specific plans for the mosaic frieze. 

“Our goal is to open up conversations about how we can transform memorials from ‘read-only’ spaces to more democratic and participatory ‘read/write’ spaces,” said Lauren Silver, Associate Professor of Childhood Studies and Faculty Director of Engaged Learning and Scholarship at Rutgers-Camden.

Whether the meetings will be held in person or virtually is to-be-determined, since large public gatherings are currently not permitted due to the pandemic. More information meetings, which will include members of the Lenni-Lenape nation, will available online.

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