NEWARK, NJ — When Akwaaba Gallery owner Laura Bonas Palmer opened up her West Ward location in February 2019, she said that her mission was to provide a place where artists could sell their work and make a sustainable living on the pieces that they create.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced her to close her business as so many others did in March 2020. A cancelation of shows, inability to rent gallery space and produce outdoor events severely impacted her revenue stream, she said. After the business also missed out on several funding aid opportunities, the gallery owner is now striving to stay afloat.
“[The pandemic] has restricted our ability to do anything,” Palmer told TAPinto Newark.
After Akwaaba got turned down for Newark's third round of its Emergency Covid Grant last month, the owner said that the gallery also missed out on the first round of funding when she and her husband were too sick to apply after being diagnosed with COVID-19. When the gallery did not qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan because it could not show a profit, Palmer found her business in a severe bind.
“I didn't qualify for unemployment because the gallery was not generating enough income to pay me a salary,” she said. “We didn't qualify for most of the arts-related COVID funding because we are not a non-profit.”
Although the business missed out on several aid opportunities, Palmer noted that she will not fold even on the brink of closure.
“It would be so easy for me to close and give up, but I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to be here. I am a part of the community.”
Along with her husband Ray, the couple opened the gallery with an intent to become a “beacon of light” in the West Ward. Since the gallery opened its doors, the location has hosted various exhibitions, art classes and outdoor gatherings.
As an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, Palmer has been a Newark resident for 18 years. She originally moved into the Central Ward, but eventually moved to the West Ward to be “on the ground, in the community, making a difference.”
Located on South Orange Avenue, the owner also noted that the gallery is a “window to the community” as people who traverse in and out of the city along the road pass by her location. When the couple opened the gallery, she hoped it would become a starting point to attract other entrepreneurs to the West Ward.
“Our whole vision was not that we would be the ones to revitalize the whole neighborhood, but that we would inspire other people to see what it could look like,” she said. “[The gallery] belongs here because this is a community that’s filled with most Black and brown people. This is the only gallery in Newark that most of the artists I’m showing are Black and brown… It supports the community. It inspires the community. It belongs here."
Since opening the gallery, Palmer said it has not only been a popular place for locals to visit, but has even welcomed visitors from all over the country, as far as Georgia, Ohio and Arizona.
“The first thing people talk about is the way it looks,” she said. “They come in, they talk to me and I encourage them. School kids come in and I talk to them about growing up. It’s a community.”
In spite of the pandemic’s effects on the business, the gallery reopened in July 2020 and has since provided several virtual events in addition to a small showing in the fall. The gallery will also host a “Mask Parade” event on March 13, which will feature paintings, glasswork, and metal sculptures.
Now looking to garner support from the community, the gallery launched a GoFundMe campaign to keep the business alive and, hopefully, survive the pandemic. As of March 3, the campaign has already raised nearly $9,000.