I spent a few weeks last winter interviewing people affiliated with art and community development in the Valley Arts District, a 15-square block neighborhood in Orange, New Jersey. I think some of us are susceptible to thinking that when the arts are involved, the complications that can arise with traditional community building are lessened. But with a varied collection of groups such as those present in the Valley, they each work with different populations and have different goals.
Those key differences and perspectives influence what they each view as challenges to their work.
In 2005, Valley Arts spawned from HANDS Inc., a CDC affordable housing developer that had been working in Orange for two decades. A citywide convening of community members and community groups several years prior had envisioned the arts as the tool that would revitalize the Valley through artist housing development, an anchor institution strategy, and outreach within and beyond the geographic map of the neighborhood to build partnerships and expand programming.
A decade in, the Valley arts family has grown to comprise gallery spaces, a professional development program for artists living with disabilities, performance venues, restaurants, and a multitude of visual, musical, and performance arts programs. Despite its growth and size, it faces challenges of space and place that many arts organizations grapple with.
Making Space for Young People
One of Valley arts’ earliest undertakings was providing space and financial resources to help build Orange Inc., a program designed to help foster the creativity and leadership skills of Orange’s young adult population. In an old renovated factory called the Ironworks building, young people from the community gathered to explore their artistic interests and learn the ins and outs of grassroots community development.
Molly Rose Kaufman, a writer and community organizer who worked in the community when Orange Inc. began in 2008, says the program was the most interesting and innovative thing happening in Orange at the time. “We asked the local young people what they wanted to do, and learned how we could support their creativity. It was entirely youth-led.”
“Doing arts development isn’t unusual, but creating a space where all those artists are hosted by the local young people is what was very special about Orange Inc.”
When Patricia Rogers came to Orange in her late teens and became involved with Orange Inc. via HANDS and Kaufman, she says part of their initial charge was convincing young adults to stay in the community. An age group that often gets lost in community development programming—17- to 25-year-olds—was a target demographic for Orange Inc., and Rogers says they visited the Ironworks building to develop their skills in a safe space, and in turn taught and mentored younger people. Under Orange Inc.’s director and master artist, it was a place where you could “do homework, write your novel, paint, record your song, design your clothes, produce your short film,” says Rogers. “We had a youth leadership council that was run by the artists who worked in the space, and other organizations in Orange would come to Ironworks and be inspired by this youth-led movement.”
Orange Inc. had to leave the building in 2015 to make room for new Valley Arts programming, and many of its members are now leading local artistic and civic endeavors. Rogers runs a culture, art, and style blog that serves as the voice of the youth community in Orange and hosts events. Another Orange Inc. alum opened a recording studio, and a group of alums started a political action group called Radical: Orange, which was the only civic organization to host a candidate’s debate during the city’s 2016 mayoral campaign.
“I don’t think many of the people who are doing these amazing things in Orange would have been doing them if it weren’t for Orange Inc.,” says Rogers. “I believe they would have graduated, gone away to school, and never looked back.”
Former Orange Inc. members and a new group of youth leaders meet out of a local community church now, but it’s clear the loss of a physical home was deeply felt.
“People still walk by Ironworks and see it’s not an arts program anymore, and they ask what happened,” said Rogers, who acknowledges that though the program wasn’t a revenue generator, “what came out of it was so valuable.”
“What I miss [are] the kids that made future plans with Orange Inc. in mind,” says Rogers, describing high school students who planned to tap into the mentoring resources that were available in the former Orange Inc. space.
A new food business incubator with a full test kitchen is currently in the works in the Ironworks building.
A large part of ValleyArt’s revitalization plan was the creation of an institution that would serve as a draw not only to the communities surrounding Orange, but the region as well.
Located less than 5 miles away from the Valley Arts District, Luna Stage had been a cultural fixture in the city of Montclair for 18 years. With a mission to highlight the diverse voices of emerging American playwrights and a commitment to community partnership, Luna was philosophically aligned with ValleyArts. In 2010, the theatre lost its space at the same time HANDS had developed a block-sized parcel in West Orange, right on the border of Orange. HANDS approached Luna Stage with a proposal to inhabit the space and become the anchor institution of the ValleyArts District. “We were such a good fit to move into this district because we didn’t have to completely reinvent ourselves,” says Cheryl Katz, artistic director of Luna Stage.
Katz says Luna’s mission deepened when it moved, and caused her and her staff to think about how they could go about changing its implementation. “Our role in this community is twofold: one part is to continue to produce outstanding theatre that brings patronage, attention, and dollars into the community from people who wouldn’t otherwise visit. The other is to bring out the artistic spirit and appreciation of the people who are living in the community and our audience members—and not just the four-block radius around the theatre.”
But when thinking about the role Luna Stage does play, “If we really want to create an arts district in the way that HANDS envisions it, [it] is not, ‘we bring in a theater, a Starbucks, a Wolfgang Puck [restaurant], everybody moves out, and wealthy people from the city move in and boom we have an arts district.’ [HANDS is] trying to do something more subtle, and admirable.” Katz says HANDS’ mission has inspired Luna Stage to be innovative and mindful in all its programming by providing an artistic home for as many of their extended community members as they can, at varying stages and levels of their careers.
When thinking about reaching out into Luna’s neighborhood, Katz says the organization has to be realistic about its capacity. Though proud of the amount of work the theatre’s small team produces on an annual basis, she notes that it has no marketing staff, and “certainly we don’t have a bilingual marketing staff, which is what would be really necessary if we wanted to be effectual in the immediate surrounding areas.” Without those resources, Katz says that they are currently “more reactive than proactive, but I think being reactive is better than being not active.”
That reactive work includes a civic playwriting class for beginners that centers on the idea of “citizen,” and what it means to be one. Professional actors are brought in to bring the plays to life in front of an audience. Luna also offers children and adult theatre classes, and partners with local schools for matinee performance viewings with student groups.
“We may not have the resources to go out, but what we do have the resources to do is be responsive to the people who are voicing an interest and want to participate.”
This post is part of a series on the successes and challenges of creative placemaking projects.