Arts & Entertainment

Newark art scene in flux as redevelopment changes city landscape

Ryan Monroe, a freelance photographer, is moving to Newark's Lower Broadway neighborhood. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Lisa Conrad, executive director of the Newark Print Shop, is now looking for another space. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Express Newark, an arts incubator conceived by Rutgers University-Newark in collaboration with the local artist community, opened in early 2017 inside the refurbished Hahne & Co. building. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
The Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, a Newark mainstay for more than three decades, is going through a reorganization. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

Artists were urban pioneers in locales like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Jersey City, setting the stage for the economic infusion that dramatically changed the landscape.

With the same surge now happening in Newark, local artists are surveying the scene, wondering what will come, and searching for ways to stay.

"When I moved to Newark, I moved into a very active, inspiring, and underground arts space," said Lisa Conrad, 36, founder and executive director of the Newark Print Shop. "Now, it's a vastly different downtown Newark. Every time that yet another artist space is lost, some will stay. But the city will also lose artists."

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Artists who have helped to lay the groundwork for Newark's ongoing revival are worried that positive change will pass them by. Many of the small galleries that dot downtown are now threatened by rising rents that could force them to close or move.

When Conrad first moved to Newark from Philadelphia eight years ago, the city’s downtown was still affordable. She paid just $187 a month in rent for a share in a combined residential loft and artists' studio above a fried chicken joint on Broad Street across from Military Park.

Since then, the park has been completely refurbished, Prudential’s new office tower opened and the long vacant Hahne & Co. department store has been transformed into an residential and retail destination anchored by an upscale Whole Foods supermarket.

The renovated Hahne & Co. building also includes Express Newark, an arts incubator conceived by Rutgers University-Newark in collaboration with the local artist community. The 50,000-square foot facility includes space for the Newark Print Shop. The shop was founded in 2012 and landed at Express Newark after it opened in early 2017. But now the shop will be on the move again - the time-limited residency that allowed it to have space at Express Newark is up.

"We understand that the Newark Print Shop made a great contribution to the vibrancy of Express Newark and the Hahne’s building and we are thankful for that," wrote Anne Englot, a professor at Rutgers-Newark and the co-director of Express Newark, in an email, noting that the print shop contractually only had a limited year-to-year period of residency at the facility.

"We wish the Newark Print Shop well, we plan to continue to support them, and we will be thrilled to see them succeed as they “graduate” from this incubator because we truly think they are ready," Englot wrote.

Conrad is now readying the print shop for its fourth move in just over five years.

"We're focusing on how we can continue to be a long-term resource for the arts community," she said. "The thriving dynamic here in Newark came from the grassroots, ground up. But our mantra is the same as it's always been - how to find funds and space."

The endless artist search for funds and space has spurred many to move from places like Brooklyn and Jersey City.

"I'm purchasing a whole 1,500-square-foot building in Newark for less than I sold my one-bedroom condo in Bed-Stuy," said Ryan Monroe, 35, a freelance photographer who also works in finance, who is moving to the Lower Broadway neighborhood. "There are still plenty of neighborhoods in Newark that are very affordable. They may not be downtown, because it's a gold mine now. But there are still a lot of opportunities elsewhere."

Monroe believes that if artists want to maintain an active presence in Newark, they literally have to own it.

"There is only one way to avoid being priced out - you have to own. The arts drives redevelopment, and when you own, you get to participate in that redevelopment," Monroe said. "If you have a group of three or four artists, you can purchase a place in the South Ward. I empathize with those who are having a hard time. But you have to ask the right questions about grants and about how the government can help you. If you ask the right questions of the right people, you're not completely helpless."

"Newark is never going to be any more affordable than it is today," Monroe added. "You're going to have to make a decision."

Jeremy Johnson, the executive director of Newark Arts, noted that several arts organizations in the city are going through transitions. The Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, a Newark mainstay for more than three decades, is going through a reorganization. City without Walls (CWoW) has closed its doors, although a movement is in the works for it to reemerge in the Lincoln Park area.

But Johnson also noted that if artists radiate from downtown, the move could give them the best chance to benefit from Newark's revitalization.

"Newark is undeniably in a period of growth and change. I’d like to emphasize that Newark Arts is interested in the arts across our city - not only the arts district downtown, but in neighborhoods in all five Newark wards.  We are working to seed a stronger arts presence, for example, in Clinton Hill, Fairmount, Lincoln Park and more," Johnson said. "Artists and arts organizations have long been at the forefront of the city’s growth. We look forward to working with all partners to ensure Newark remains a city of the arts."

When asked what it's going to take to allow her to remain, Conrad pointed out that ultimately, artists in Newark have to count on themselves.

"Artists need to organize and learn how to access capital that working-class artists don't have - we have to band together and own our own spaces," Conrad said. "That's the only way that artists will not continually have to move around. Otherwise, we're at the mercy of the market. If we can tap into our own creativity and resiliency, we're going to survive and thrive."

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