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Published April 30, 2021

By Laura Newcomer

Rutgers’ Express Newark is a vibrant place to create art and advance social justice

A hundred years ago, long before Netflix and Amazon, people sought entertainment and purchased goods not on the internet but in lavish department stores. In Newark, patrons flocked to Broad Street’s Hahne & Company to see and be seen, to shop, and to immerse themselves in a place of wonder. One of the store’s progenitors, Julius Hahne, started out selling bird cages and toys before proffering virtually every consumer good then imaginable. Legend has it that customers would enter the brick building’s expansive atrium to the sight of dozens of birds swinging from the rafters in elaborate cages. Standing here in this fantastical space, with sunlight streaming through the atrium’s glass ceiling and the sound of birdsong filling the air, you could find yourself transported with the feeling that dreams really do come true.

Back then, those dreams were available only to a select few: namely the white and the wealthy. Newark’s most affluent families pulled up to the store in elegant carriages, and the shopping place became a site of social pageantry. Despite Hahne & Company’s tagline as The Store with the Friendly Spirit, most everyone else—particularly Black people and other people of color—was excluded from accessing the imaginative spaces spread throughout the building. Even Black employees including James Van der Zee, the quintessential Harlem Renaissance photographer who got his start making portraits at Hahne’s, were not allowed out onto the floors of merchandise.

But since 2017, Rutgers’ Express Newark: The Center for Socially Engaged Art and Design has been rewriting that story by converting part of the iconic Hahne’s Building into an artistic place where everyone is welcome and divisions blur. Interdisciplinary collaborations produce magical results at Express Newark, and both campus and city merge and uplift each other. Principles of social justice and the alchemical creativity of art suffuse the Express Newark’s interior and seep beyond its walls to transform Newark and model to the world what’s possible when art, justice, and scholarship meet.

“Art-making and artists themselves are practices and people that can give so much not just to the public but to thinking about how we should engage with each other and understand the world we’re in,” says Salamishah Tillet, faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark and Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing. “The issues that we’re trying to tend to around social justice and equity are so big that we need many ways of imagining how to navigate and make sense of them.” To that end, Express Newark supports and empowers artists of all stripes. Occupying 50,000 square feet of the former Hahne & Company store, the space is utilized by large swaths of Rutgers students and faculty, is free and open to the community, and houses a network of academic and community partnerships that engage with questions of equity through the lenses of photography, painting, graphic design, public art, film, music, entrepreneurship, and more. All are welcome in this collaborative space, and all who interact with Express Newark’s programming are transformed.

Express Newark in action

For Nick Kline, Rutgers associate professor of photography and founder and director of Shine Portrait Studio at Express Newark (Shine), Express Newark is a dream come true. In 2007, Kline drafted a proposal for a photography lab where students could work in downtown Newark while engaging community members who live and work in the city. The idea sat dormant until Express Newark’s conceptualization, which arose out of Rutgers’ desire to create a new kind of community-engaged art space. At Shine, students and community members take classes and utilize state-of-the-art equipment for photoshoots, fashion shows, artist talks, conferences, and more. Community members access the space free of charge, and students provide complementary services to organizations seeking to transform Newark and advance social justice. On any given day, students might create portraits of newly immigrated families participating in a local education program, host artists- and curators-in-residence who practice anti-racism via visual art, or conduct photo shoots for a regional radio show that uplifts marginalized voices. The team even operates a small press—Shine Press—which partners with Rutgers’ MFA in Creative Writing program to publish small edition artist books, chapbooks, and broadsides. While these projects are broad ranging in discipline and scope, Kline says what ties them all together is that “Shine is here for the community to tell its own stories that radiate here and beyond. We are trying to create, on the one hand, a very practical resource in the community, but also one that captures people’s imaginations. We are winning over people’s hearts and minds through the arts.” As a statement about the studio’s expansively inclusive mission, Shine is dedicated to James Van der Zee, with a striking photo mural of the revered artist at its entrance.

This collaborative approach has remained a focal point of Express Newark throughout the Covid-19 pandemic (though now much of that teamwork occurs online). The institution continues to engage university students, faculty, and the broader public in creating art that reflects varied voices and pursues an equitable approach toward collective liberation. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, collaborators came together to create two themed street murals (while employing social distancing protocols) in partnership with the City of Newark, community members, and Rutgers students and faculty. “There’s something wonderful about making art that had the same political weight as the protests but where my children could participate, and my neighbors could participate,” Tillet says. “That is inspiring. This is what we give to the City of Newark.” It’s a gift the city relishes. “Newark has a strong commitment to the arts and social justice,” Tillet says. “It’s part of the DNA of the city. It’s also the DNA of Rutgers–Newark.”

Uniting campus and city

Too often, universities and the academics within them are accused of detaching from the rest of the world, ensconcing themselves in so-called ivory towers. Not so at Express Newark, which lives at the boundary between campus and city and encourages fluidity between these spheres. Originally conceptualized as a “third space” between work and home, the collaborations and artistry that arise from within Express Newark spill beyond the building that houses it. Through alliances with city and community partners, indoor and outdoor public art exhibitions, artists-in-residence who conduct their work and research throughout the city, street mural projects, and dynamic exhibitions about environmental and racial justice, Tillett says Express Newark is crafting a multifaceted art space that “is more democratic and more engaged and reflects the public. The dynamism that’s inside the building is expressed outside the building.”

That dynamism is on full display in two Express Newark programs co-led by Rutgers Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Chantal Fischzang. The first, Visual Means, conceptualizes the work of academics and researchers in Newark who seek to highlight regional issues and create a positive impact. Currently, Visual Means students are designing data visualizations to support researchers at a local ecology think tank. The second program, Design Consortium, collaborates with organizations and activists to enhance their visibility through great design. Students support a variety of justice-oriented work free of charge—from crafting promotional materials for a regional homeless shelter for LGBT youth to designing a brand identity for Lives in Translation, an interdisciplinary group through which bilingual Rutgers students provide interpreting services to law clinics that assist immigrants. “A lot of the work that we’ve done is because we’ve met people in the space,” Fischzang says. “[It provides] a way to make use of this wonderful value we have in our diversity.” For instance, Design Consortium has partnered with Shine Portrait Studio to create portraits of students working with Lives in Translation, and the 3D-printing-focused Form Design Studio and Lab also supports the LGBT homeless shelter, LGBT RAIN Foundation. It’s a win-win: Students develop technical skills, advance their understanding of social justice, and earn real-world work experience, while local organizations enlarge their community impact. “The students get to experience these relationships in a way that is different than [conventional graphic design education],” Fischzang says. “They feel empowered and validated by the facilities and the equipment that they are able to use and the access that they have in the space.”

Born out of a magical space with a complex social history, Express Newark’s programming is as diverse as the people and artists who today pass through the Hahne’s Building’s doors. Tillet says what all the initiatives share is a belief in the power of art to light the way toward a more just future. While arts programs around the country are suffering budget cuts brought on by the pandemic-related recession, Tillet and her collaborators have high hopes for the future of Express Newark. Moving forward, they plan to create a minor in socially engaged art, open a Free School where anyone can take classes, expand their core faculty, develop more robust artists-in-residence programs and fellowships, and establish Express Newark and Rutgers writ large as major cultural institutions both in Newark and nationally. As Tillet puts it: “If you are interested in socially engaged art and art that can positively impact the community in which it is being made, you should be coming to Express Newark.”

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