Art is a major force in the redevelopment of Newark. But when the Newark Arts Festival opened this year, for a few days it was the greatest force.
"I like to be able to hang out on a weekend night and walk around from space to space and see experimentation," said Anker West, a longtime Newark artist and designer, at the Index Art Center on Washington Street while artists and those who love art swirled around him. "I've been here since 1976, and I've seen it all. This is great for creativity."
Creativity is the raison d'être of the annual festival, held this year from October 4 to October 7. Dozens of exhibitions, forums, studio tours, performances, mural excursions, screenings, and children’s events spread out from Newark's downtown throughout the city.
Joey Palestina, writer, filmmaker, musician, and Newark native, noted the impact of the arts on his hometown.
"The arts scene is exploding in Newark right now," said Palestina, who curated the Art & Prozak pop-up exhibit on Broad Street with partner Steve Kelly. "Spaces like this are the rawest type of art. Raw things can explode. That component is where the arts are spawned."
Lowell Craig, the owner of the Index Arts Center, and Joshua Knoblick, an artist who owns a historic preservation company, are two artrepreneurs who have watched the art scene change in Newark over the past 15 years.
"It's good that people coming to Newark see the galleries, pop-ups, and restaurants," Craig said. "People need to see what's going on."
"The festival is a piece of the puzzle. The scene is in a bit of a transition phase at the moment," Knoblick said. "Newark is a stepping stone for people, a place where they can figure things out. At the end of the day, we all do support each other. I haven't been around that kind of supportive nature in other places."
Dana L. Jackson, another artist on the downtown festival trail, pointed out how art crates a kind of support system for many people.
"Some people can't afford therapy, and art becomes therapy," Jackson said. "I'm a nurse, and art is my therapy...When I come home, it's what levels me out."
Other people who came out to the festival noted that creativity and commerce need to be on the same level. It's an important reality for artists who want to survive and thrive in a changing Newark.
"Art can be elevated in a non-gentrified way," said Brianna Christia, a student at Rutgers-New Brunswick. "People from Newark, who know the essence of Newark, should have access to places where their art can be shown and sold."
"Why shouldn't people be able to make money from their own story?" said Rachel Jones, also a student at Rutgers-New Brunswick. "Art can empower people in multiple ways."
Artist Jo-El Lopez curated the "So What" exhibition at the Gallery Aferro on Broad Street. The exhibit, named after one of the late jazz great Miles Davis' most famous compositions, hopes to empower artists to do what they do best.
"There is no certain image or direction for this exhibition. I wanted the artists to be influenced by Miles Davis, who did whatever he wanted," Lopez said. "No one turned me down."
Matt Gosser, another stalwart of the Newark arts scene who curated the Art & Artifacts exhibition, provided some perspective about how art has turned Newark into something new. The flowing force of art will continue to transmogrify the city before our eyes, he said.
"Layers of history and personality have built up the Newark arts scene," said Gosser, who is also an art professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology. "This festival has done a good job of promoting the arts here. In general, it's a positive experience for everyone. It always will be."