NEWARK, NJ - A new mural initiative between developers and nonprofits that work closely with the city isn't being welcomed with open arms by local artists who say the project will beautify areas they may soon be pushed out of.
RBH Group is working with other developers and nonprofits, including Newark Arts and the Newark Community Development Corporation, for the Four Corners Public Arts project. The plan calls for more than 20 facades and surfaces on Treat Place and Beaver Street in the city's downtown to be painted this fall.
The project’s name bears similarities to RBH Group's Four Corners Millennium Project, which is putting a local grassroots art gallery and studio on Washington Street in jeopardy. RBH Group is the same developer that built Teacher's Village, a Halsey Street project geared towards subsidized apartments for educators.
Index Art Center had been subleasing the space at 237 Washington St. from RBH Group since about 2013, but the city planning board in June approved RBH’s application to build 226 residential units there. The meeting drew more than a dozen local artists who called for Index to be saved.
A press release from Newark Arts said the mural initiative will "mitigate the growing pains associated with development in progress." That part particularly bothered Lowell Craig, who rents out the space for Index Art Center.
“It’s just that they’re naming this project after where we are basically,” Craig told TAPinto Newark. “Part of that press release says that this project is supposed to ease tensions in the arts community. Are you kidding me? Who’s writing this stuff? Do they know where the four corners is at and who they’re displacing?”
Other artists like Amanda Thackray, who has had some art exhibits at Index, isn't against any project that supports local artists. But she was wary of the project because it allows for national, international and local artists to apply. She would prefer to see only local artists paint the project.
"It’s a mural program that’s going to be beautifying spaces that we’re not going to be occupying," said Thackray, who also added the project "feels a little bit tone-deaf."
"They’re opening it to national and international artists because they want to bring in bigger names," she later added. "That’s all about gentrification."
Concepts for the mural are to tap into the area's history. Proposals can pay homage to the Native American Lenni-Lenape tribe, the history of the Robert Treat's settlement during 1666 in Newark, early fur-trapping, theatrical or entertainment history, or celebrate local agents of change.
An RBH Group spokesman said any similarities between the mural initiative's name and the Four Corners Millennium Project were "completely coincidental." He said the project was initiated by the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation and RBH Group's help was solicited.
"The name of the Four Corners Public Arts project comes from the name of the historic district in which the project is taking place: The Four Corners Historic District," RBH spokesman Lonnie Soury wrote in an email.
Soury added in a phone interview with TAPinto Newark that RBH Group had been giving artists below market-rate rents for years. He said RBH Group had communicated with the artists that the arrangement would be temporary until development plans were finalized.
"We understand why they’re concerned," Soury said. "Nobody wants to be displaced. It’s difficult, but we’re committed to the artists and the arts community in Newark."
Newark Arts Executive Director Jeremy Johnson said the initiative would help employ artists. Artists may respond to requests for proposals to paint the murals until Sept. 3.
“Newark Arts is pleased to continue to work with a number of partners to provide meaningful opportunities for artists to contribute to the beauty and enrichment of our city, especially as Newark is changing,” Johnson said in a statement. “We've been involved in the planning of this Four Corners project since April, and are particularly happy that this Request for Proposals (RFP) will employ local artists in a paid capacity.”
The mural initiative is being spearheaded by several other groups, including the Newark Downtown District and another prominent local developer, Paramount Assets. That developer is involved in nearby projects, but not the one that would impact Index.
The project is being funded through public and private contributions, Newark Arts said in its release. The partnership is being organized by the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (NCEDC), a quasi-governmental organization that works to bolster the city.
“The Mayor desires to create a thriving, vibrant, and inclusive city whereby all benefit from the renaissance currently being experienced by the culture, art, and redevelopment that increases the City's greatness,” said NCEDC Real Estate Development Senior Vice President Franklyn Ore in a statement.
Craig, who runs Index, said RBH Group recently had a meeting with a few other local artists to discuss Index's future. He said the company discussed the possibility of moving Index and other art organizations into one space somewhere in the city.
“But it’s years down the road and a tremendous amount of fundraising,” Craig said, adding that he’s also searching for affordable spaces in the meantime.
Still, he recognized that it wasn't up to RBH to house artist or take care of any art groups.
“RBH is a private company they can do whatever they want,” Craig added. “They can support us. They don’t have to support us.”