What Newark’s Aljira gallery is doing to continue incubating artist careers in town, 30 years after its grassroots founding

givenewarkAljira, A Center for Contemporary Art was founded more than 30 years ago by a group of young artists here in Newark. Since that time, the gallery has helped dozens of artists form their careers by exhibiting their work and, through their Emerge program, has provided artist business training as well. Aljira has also turned itself into a bona fide cultural space by hosting events in the performing arts.

Executive Director Victor Davson discusses what’s at stake for Newark in Aljira’s continued success, and why community-based support is necessary now than ever before. Aljira is a member of the GAIN collective, and will be hosting a free kickoff party at the gallery on #GivingTuesday, December 1st. (RSVP)

Andaiye Taylor: What is Aljira’s primary objective, and what is distinctive about Aljira’s approach to art and arts programming in Newark?

Something in the Way of Things by Michael Paul Britto

Something in the Way of Things by Michael Paul Britto

Victor Davson: Aljira is a nonprofit organization, co-founded over 30 years ago by a group of young artists in search of inexpensive work space. It evolved as an alternative space in the 80’s presenting memorable, innovative exhibitions, educational programs and artists’ talks by both celebrated and under-recognized artists. The Aljira Fine Art Auction attracts patrons and art collectors whose purchases of cutting-edge paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints by artists from diverse backgrounds provide earned revenues to support our programs for the public.

As many as 150 to 200 artists benefit from opportunities to present their work in solo and group exhibitions throughout the year. Aljira also fulfills its public mission by bringing to Newark exhibitions and programs that the community would not otherwise have access to, and draws a network of supporters and donors from the surrounding communities into Newark’s downtown arts district.

The New Jersey State Council on the Arts has designated Aljira a Major Arts Institution for nine consecutive years since 2006. Also, Aljira is the only organization in the state of New Jersey invited to participate in the national Warhol Foundation Initiative during the initiative’s history.

Our current exhibitions, curated by visiting curator Dexter Wimberly, feature insightful works by artists Michael Paul Britto and Tom Nussbaum. Aljira regards its work as a modest but solid contribution to Newark as the city gathers its strength to accomplish the profound rejuvenation already underway.

Taylor: What is at stake in Aljira fulfilling its mission?

Davson: Small to mid-size non-profit institutions like Aljira, which give Newark a distinctive profile, are experiencing a decline in funding from stakeholder grantmakers such as Prudential — grantmakers who support excellence in their community — who have announced they will only fund major art institutions and programs like the Newark Museum, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. As a result, smaller institutions like ours, already woefully underfunded, must work creatively and collectively to use opportunities like #GivingTuesday to advocate for the arts.

Aljira’s professional development programs have supported the work and careers of artists, helping them to thrive and become successful by teaching them to be entrepreneurial and develop clear financial objectives and goals.

As a destination in Newark’s downtown arts district, Aljira welcomes over three thousand visitors locally and throughout the tri-state area each year.

aljira events wembly

Taylor: What are some initiatives that Aljira has been involved in through its long history that have made a difference in Newark?

Davson: One of the most successful Aljira programs has been Emerge, a career development and exhibition program started in 1999 for emerging artists. Graduates of the program include some of the best and brightest artists, curators, and art professionals working in the field today. Under the tutelage of experienced professionals, Emerge fellows learn how to manage their careers and develop a personal multi-year plan.

Over the years, the program has provided artists with the resources to overcome obstacles, focus on goals, and move forward in their creative practice. Emerge addresses practical areas of concern to artists, such as legal and financial issues, gallery representation, exhibition and public art opportunities, and marketing. The program has positively impacted the careers of over 240 fellows since its inception.

Last year, Aljira also had a major survey exhibition, “Aljira at 30: Dream and Reality” at the New Jersey State Museum curated by Margaret O’Reilly, Director of Fine Arts. The exhibition was a lively historical overview which celebrated Aljira’s 30th anniversary and included work by a representative selection of artists from the hundreds who have passed through and made Aljira the vital, far-reaching enterprise it has become. It included ephemera which told the story of the Aljira’s evolution decade by decade, and artworks by 41 of the roughly 1,800 artists and cultural workers affiliated with Aljira over the years, all of whose names were featured on a special wall of names.

Victor Davson poses in front of an Aljira 30th anniversary banner.

Victor Davson poses in front of an Aljira 30th anniversary banner.

Taylor: What initiatives in the next few years will #GivingTuesday Day contributions help to facilitate?

Davson: Our public programming has recently expanded to include free performances by dance companies, such as Nai-Ni Chen and Carolyn Dorfman. In 2015 and 2016, master musician Oliver Lake is curating a jazz series at Aljira, and founding director of The Dodge Poetry Festival, Jim Haba, is organizing readings and workshops by a roster of emerging and renowned poets. In partnership with organizations such as La Casa de Don Pedro, #GivingTuesday contributions to Aljira will also help support upcoming arts enrichment initiatives we are planning for Newark youth.

Taylor: If someone supports Aljira’s mission but doesn’t have a lot of money to give, what are some meaningful ways they can contribute?

Davson: There’s always a way to support Aljira, even for those who don’t have money to give. Attend Aljira’s exhibitions and programs with a young person to expose them to the arts, sign up to become an Aljira ambassador, or volunteer your time or services. We also offer internships to college and university students who acquire a range of practical arts and management skills. You can also support us through sharing our information with your networks and friends.

No amount is too small. Donations to Aljira can be made at the GAIN-Newark #GivingTuesday kick-off celebration at Aljira on December 1st from 6 to 8 p.m., or online at www.newarkgives.org. (RSVP for the free celebration on Eventbrite.)

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