Sitting in the shadow of the city that never sleeps is a place where the streets are lined with Black creativity. Home to iconic performers, stoic storytellers, imaginative designers, and dreamy poets Newark, New Jersey, embodies a tenderness that is often misunderstood outside of its borders. Across the city, artists, administrators, educators, and activists have been working to ensure the beauty of Newark is seen on a national scale. We spoke with three of the many women leading the charge to support the Newark arts scene and the Black community that birthed it.
Taneshia Nash Laird President and CEO Newark Symphony Hall
Taneshia Nash Laird is shrouded in Newark’s cultural legacy each time she sets foot in her workplace. The President and CEO of Newark Symphony Hall is restoring and managing the historical venue that gave voice to Marian Anderson, Sarah Vaughan, and Queen Latifah. Embarking on a large-scale renovation she is leveraging its history to support its future.
“There is so much incredible talent in the city, and I think that talent deserves a platform and deserves to be supported and elevated. And to me, it’s my honor to be able to be a vehicle to amplify those voices and that creativity,” she said.
Laird has worked to amplify those spaces with monetary and physical resources. “What artists want is space and it happens that I run a place that has a lot of space. So that’s what I’ve been offering up,” she said. Instead of shaking the usual trees to find artists she opted to meet them where they were by responding to cold calls on social media and paying attention to what was coming out of local artist collectives.
“These are people that I just followed on Instagram and I was like, ‘Hey, you know, I love your work and I would love for you to be able to present your work.’ And we were able to support both visual artists and performing artists,” she said. “It’s important for me to go where the conversations are happening. It’s important for me to go to those creators. It’s important for them to know that we are accessible.”
As someone who dreamed of being able to bring their vision to life as a young person she understood what it meant for someone in a position of power to turn their ear towards the young and ambitious. “I was that person who dreamt about having access to somebody like me. Right? So I want to break down those barriers.”
She sets aside time to check her direct messages and is often met with those who are surprised that she responds personally. “I’m going to respond to you. I might not be able to do all the things that they ask me to, that they want me to do for them, but I want to give them the courtesy of a response. We are in a small community and we should be accessible,” she said. “Because it’s their place. We’re 95 years old this year, right? We belong to the community.”
She lent space, offered recommendations and provided information to empower others looking to aid in the city’s cultural growth and build their own artistic endeavors.
Newark Symphony Hall is working on rolling out a New Jersey Youth Poet Laureate Program and a creative incubator for performing artists, and several artist-in-residence programs.
“Somebody gave me an opportunity and I’m just seeking to give other people those opportunities too,” said Laird. “I’m still so often the only Black woman in the room and I don’t want to be the only one in the room. So it’s important to bring all those people along.”
“Perhaps because we’re so close to New York, there was this idea that, you know, you had to go to New York in order to really stake your claim,” she said. Laird worked to dismantle this myth by selecting partners that reflected the pulse of the city for the organization’s Embrace Newark Initiative. Edited and creative directed by Newark’s own Jasmine Mans the program included curated writing, photography, and video footage that was accessible to the public free of charge providing invaluable exposure for the artists chosen.
“I wanted to be able to support them in their own home city. When we did go virtual, I was also pleased to partner with a bunch of artists,” she continued. “I think it showed people Newark Symphony Hall really could be a place for local creatives and local performing artists.”
When gathering artists and their supporters together was no longer an option due to COVID-19 precautions, she galvanized her staff to hand out food to those in need turning what was once solely a destination for special occasions into a daily reminder of the community’s strengths.
Her fellow Black women were integral in helping her acquire resources and spread the message about the community feedings and virtual offerings.
“I’m excited to be in a city that has an artist as a mayor, so he gets it and the other thing that I love about Mayor Baraka is if you look at the people that he has surrounded himself and the people that he has appointed in key roles, they’re women.”
Being surrounded by Black women was a welcome change for Laird. “I think one of the things about being in this space is that it can be quite lonely and isolating because there aren’t a lot of people that look like us in these roles. So I think it’s really important that we continue to lock arms, and continue to cultivate and support the people.”
Fayemi Shakur, Newark’s Director of Arts and Cultural
The decision to pull herself away from her flourishing career and into the city’s administration was an easy one for Fayemi Shakur. “I had three artist residencies in 2018, and my own practice was really starting to advance but when Mayor Ras Baraka calls you to serve your city, you go,” she said.
The author, lecturer, and interdisciplinary artist had been a fixture in the Newark Arts community for 20 years when she was tapped to become the city’s Director of Arts and Cultural affairs.
Shakur’s vision for the city’s cultural life aligned with the Mayor’s. “We want to ensure the long-term sustainability of our art and culture sector. Newark is a city of poets, a city of artists. We’re very fortunate that our Mayor himself is an artist, so he gets it,” she continued.
“We’re really concerned about making sure space is created and terms of providing space for, small to midsize art organizations and groups to flourish. But even more importantly is just direct funding for our art organizations and individual artists. And in other cities, especially, you know, we’re right next door to New York, they have a percentage for arts funding. And while we don’t have the same budget, we do have a phenomenally vibrant art scene,” said Shakur. “It’s all about access, equitable funding, and sustainability.”
“When COVID happened, we had to pivot to really respond in an urgent way,” she said. “We wanted to reduce the possibility of job layoffs and make sure artists had some sort of income to support their losses. As spaces were closed, and exhibitions and performances were canceled that was really important to me.”
“I just felt responsible for this community,” she continued. “Our culture sector contributes $178 million a year to our economy and supports 5,000 jobs. And I was terribly worried about businesses closing and artists not being able to support themselves.”
The city’s answer to the crisis was the Creative Catalyst fund. Created in partnership with the Department of Economic and Housing Development, and Newark Arts with additional support from the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the fund was able to provide $750,000 to artists and arts organizations. Galleries, open mics, musicians, playwrights, podcasters, filmmakers, and others were able to continue to make cultural contributions with their support. “We were able to grant 120 awards. That was just a phenomenal achievement.”
Shakur used her experiences as an artist to inform her actions as an administrator. She knew where the city’s artists dwelled because she was one of them.
“When I joined the administration in January creating an arts fund was one of the first priorities that the Mayor tasked me with and I really enjoyed actually that process of creating funding to serve and support our arts community, because I’ve been on the other side of it as an artist applying and getting rejected and not knowing why.”
She brought empathy to her work that allowed her to prioritize effectively at the onset of the current global pandemic. As traditional avenues for artists to come together were closed the city held virtual events where artists could interact and ask questions.
“Sometimes the lack of access is regarding just communication and networking,” she said. “You have to be a part of the community so that you can hear about and know what’s going on. I think the thing that hurts artists the most is working in isolation. You need community because that’s how we share opportunities with one another,” she said.
The sense of togetherness fostered by the city’s creators and representatives allowed it to become a shining example of the impact of non-violent resistance after George Floyd’s murder inspired nationwide marches protesting police brutality. Shakur saw the moment as a reflection of what she already knew.
“When the protests came and we painted the ground murals together, in community, that was a really inspiring moment that really demonstrated the value and the power of our arts community,” she said. “Artists are not afraid of situations like this, of moments like this. This is where we thrive. This is when we go to work, as Toni Morrison said. This is our duty to respond to the times.”
“Considering the state of the nation. I couldn’t think of another place in the country where I’d feel safer. I feel safe here, and we’re not so worried about what other people think of us in this moment. We’re more so proving. It’s more like we have something to prove to ourselves more than anyone else,” she continued. “We are the storytellers of this moment. So I’m just really grateful that we’re able to support our artists and our community.”
Her community includes other Black women in Newark who are committing to furthering its role as a cultural juggernaut including President and CEO of Newark Symphony Taneisha Nash Laird and Director of Marketing and Artistic Initiatives at Newark Arts Lauren Craig. “Working in the spirit of collaboration, you’re able to kind of share resources with other organizations, you know, that philosophy teamwork makes the dream work,” said Shakur.
“It’s really important when we think about Black feminism and theory that we don’t just leave those ideas in theory. We don’t leave the idea of sisterhood in theory. It must also work in practice. It’s almost critical to have Black women in your corner to share your ideas with and your vulnerabilities. We’re so good at supporting and encouraging one another,” she added.
“It’s what we do.”
Lauren Craig, Director of Marketing and Artistic
Initiatives at Newark Arts
Lauren Craig cemented her commitment to the city after being struck by a comment in her law school classroom. “I specifically remember being in law school and them telling us, you know, don’t be on Halsey street after 5:00 PM because you could get robbed,” she said. After spending years falling in love with the city, she took the insult personally.
“When I graduated from law school, I decided to really make Newark my home,” said Craig. “I loved it. I loved the vibe, I loved the city.”
Craig was enamored with the fine dining she found on Ferry Street, and the custom designs she saw on Halsey street but it was the art she encountered in studios across the city that made her feel truly at home. As a member of the family that brought Art in The Artrium to nearby Morristown, New Jersey, she understood the value of Black art and was happy to be surrounded by it in Brick City.
“I met so many people. I met so many artists, so many people that had been working and living in Newark,” said Craig. She was inspired by what she saw to volunteer her time as board member for Newark Arts. Before long they were inviting her to devote herself to promoting the non-profit full-time.
“I came on as a social media consultant, worked my way up to marketing manager, a full-time staffer as a marketing manager, and then I was promoted to Director of Marketing and Artistic Initiatives.”
Marketing the organization took creativity. As the comment from Craig’s professor indicated, the city’s reputation as a hub for grim poverty and petty crime consistently outshone the thriving art scene that was there before the challenges. Craig was tasked with highlighting the expanded resources without disavowing the cultural legacy.
She brokered deals with Hennessy’s Valerie Lora and tapped event expert Ericka Régine to help conceptualize Instagrammable moments and events that met industry standards. She advocated for national coverage of the Newark Arts Festival and expanded press outreach to include local Black publications like The Newark Times and Urban Girl Mag who were present before Vogue and the New York Times began paying attention.
Merging her artistic expertise with her negotiating skills has helped her not only champion Newark’s artists in the public eye but speak to their interests behind the scenes as well.
“We are working to make sure that dollars get directly in the hands of our Newark artists,” she said.
“A lot of people come to us and think that the artists should just volunteer their time,” Craig continued. “Or just do it for exposure,” she added.
“A lot of what I do is really educate people about the value of art and the value of artists. Time is no less than if you go to a doctor’s office and you want something, you want a diagnosis. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, doctor can’t, you just do it this time for free.’ These are professionals. These are people that do this to pay their bills and they are experts at it.They’ve gone to school, they’ve been working in this community for years and it’s about valuing their time and their expertise.”
Craig pointed out the potential for Black artists to be ghettoized into a segment of the art market that is undervalued without proper institutional support. “It’s so important, especially in a city like Newark, because we work with mostly Brown and Black artists,” she said.
“We have to make sure that these corporations and these clients then come to understand Brown and Black art is just as valuable as any other art that you will see. And it is fine art. It is not just ‘street art.’ It is not just’ urban art,’ like no it is fine art.”
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