Part of a six-county metro division nestled between the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, the city of Newark is building a desirable place for artists and art enthusiasts to live and work. According to the 2022 Arts Vibrancy Index Report, Newark Metro Division scores in the top two percent of communities nationwide for the number of arts, culture, and entertainment firms as well as arts and cultural employees per capita.
In its rapidly developing downtown arts district, three anchor institutions have taken a highly proactive and collaborative approach to establishing a self-sustainable hub for arts and culture entertainment, work, and living. Currently underway for a 2024 completion, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) has partnered with Center Street Owners (CSO) on a $150 million redevelopment project that will create an entirely new neighborhood of low-rise and high-rise multifamily buildings, townhomes, retail establishments, restaurants, and cultural spaces on a portion of the 7.3 acres of developable land at NJPAC’s riverfront campus. This will include a three-story arts education and community center for education programs, free performing arts events, as well as useful rehearsal space for local artists.
Also slated for a 2024 completion date, Newark Museum of Art has partnered with L + M Development Partners and KSS Architects on the development of two new multifamily residential buildings to the tune of $85 million. Similar to NJPAC’s project, the goal is to create an area that intertwines the arts into daily life. With close proximity to the museum, a new restaurant, a souvenir shop, and an outdoor sculpture garden, residents and visitors alike will have plenty to do and see in the area.
By the end of 2025, the Symphony Hall will also have completed their $50 million renovation to restore the 100-year-old facility to its former glory as well as add two new floors of commercial space, an onsite coffee shop, and a new restaurant. All of three of these massive projects include efforts to provide the community with affordable housing as mandated by the city and invite active participation from current residents throughout the process. Still, many locals are voicing concerns about potential displacement as nearly 300,000 Newark residents live in poverty and the downtown arts district is just one corner of the city that’s seeing a wave of large-scale revitalization projects.
Less than two miles from Newark’s Liberty Airport is a long-abandoned, 15-acre lot, formerly the site of one of New Jersey’s first public housing facilities. After years of sitting in ruins, the space is now slated to become a much-desired tv and film production studio, featuring six large soundstages to meet the growing demand for actors and skilled union labor in Newark and surrounding areas.
Co-existing with these anchor institutions and large-scale development projects is a diverse ecosystem of arts organizations, projects, and artists. Examples include Gallery Aferro, an artist-owned alternative arts space engages with issues such as racial equity, gender identity, and urban renewal through art installations, exhibitions, and community initiatives. Jazz Vespers, a free concert series featuring today’s hottest jazz artists hosted by Bethany Baptist Church is another community staple. Trilogy, An Opera Company presents exciting contemporary performances reflective of the Black experience. Project Ready, a nonprofit focused on voting rights, recently held the Voting Power Experience, a pop-up museum about the civil rights activism. These projects and many others reflect the city’s diverse neighborhoods and activist history.
When it comes to support for the arts, Newark scores within the top four percent of communities nationwide on overall measurements of Government Support and Mayor Baraka was quick to respond to local funding needs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Developed as a multi-year initiative to provide the local community of artists and small and mid-sized arts organizations up to $1 million annually for at least three years, the Creative Catalyst Fund has awarded $2.35 million in total grants so far. In its most recent year, the Fund awarded 134 artists and organizations funding for programs that served more than 250,000 Newark residents and visitors and paid over 1,000 additional artists for their contributions in these projects. Grantees used the funds to help pay for a myriad of operating costs, including space rentals, staff, programming costs, supplies and equipment, as well as COVID-related expenses. The Creative Catalyst Fund is administered by the City’s Division of Arts and Cultural Affairs in partnership with Newark Arts and was designed and facilitated with support from Bloomberg Associates, the pro bono municipal consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Fund also aligns with Newark Creates, a collaborative cultural plan researched and developed by Newark Arts on behalf of the city, which was made final in 2019. Funded by Prudential and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the plan details an 18-month organized initiative of community members, nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental stakeholders working together to advance an equitable foundation for Newark arts and culture to thrive.
From historical museums to contemporary galleries and from street art to grand theaters, Newark offers a diverse range of artistic experiences. As the city continues to evolve and embrace its role as a cultural hub, its arts organizations and artists will undoubtedly play a central role in shaping its identity and connecting its diverse communities.
Thank you to Ann Marie Miller of ArtPride New Jersey for their thoughtful contributions to the making of this article.
ABOUT THE ARTS VIBRANCY INDEX
The Arts Vibrancy Index examines the level of supply, demand, and government support of the arts in more than 900 communities across the country. Accompanied by an interactive Arts Vibrancy Map that reveals the arts-vibrancy score of every county in the U.S., the Index lists, in alphabetical order, the 20 most arts-vibrant large cities, the 10 most arts-vibrant medium cities, and the 10 most arts-vibrant small cities. In this year’s Index, the first since 2020, four communities debut on the lists, and an additional five return after an absence of at least three years.