A place for the arts to live and grow
Feb 16, 2015 12:18AM
By Kerigan Butt
Eye-catching murals on the outside of the Arts Alliance let people know something special is happening inside.
By John Chambless
As the executive director of the Newark Arts Alliance, Dennis Lawson knows how important the arts are in a community. Part of his job is reminding people of that.
“We know people want the arts and culture in their lives,” Lawson said during an interview at the Arts Alliance last month. “But when we're asking for money, people ask, 'What are the outcomes?' We all know art benefits people, but it's important to point to what studies have shown. If children are exposed to art and encouraged to be creative, it helps them with critical thinking and problem solving. It boosts their confidence. It's not just about having fun. There's a value to the arts.”
The Arts Alliance has marked its 20th year in Newark by offering more outreach than ever. “Back in 1993, a group of artists, writers and musicians got together and their goal was to put together a network of creative thinkers to help bring creativity to the community,” Lawson said. “In 1994, they officially incorporated as a non-profit organization. The original location was on Delaware Avenue, in a house they called the Art House.” The group later moved to the Granary Shops on Elkton Road, then to their current location in a converted warehouse space in the Market East Plaza off of Main Street.
“They had a board member whose name was Paul Schlosser,” Lawson said. “He was one of the owners of this property. He encouraged them to move here, into the Market East Plaza.”
The buildings also house the Newark Natural Foods Co-Op and several other stores, but the Arts Alliance itself is not visible from Main Street.
“We are a little tucked away,” Lawson said, “but people love us once they get to know us. The trick is getting them to know that we're here.” Toward that end, the organization goes above and beyond in offering itself as a place to create and enjoy arts of all kinds.
Run on a budget of about $75,000 per year in grants, memberships, fundraisers and donations, the Arts Alliance has only two part-time employees – Lawson and a bookkeeper – but has a first-class exhibition space with a different show every month, a retail shop full of crafts and artwork by a revolving selection of member artists, and a classroom space for kids as young as 5 all the way up to senior citizens. There's a huge range of art and craft classes, along with free music nights, open mic nights for poets and authors, a monthly drum circle and whatever else people might dream up.
“This is the only place in Newark for local artists to display their work,” Lawson said. As such, it's a busy place.
“The best part of my job is seeing people be creative,” he said. “I just love it when I see how excited people are to get their stuff in the exhbitions. We have a lot of talented artists, so when you get into a show, it's a great feeling.”
Lawson has been at the Arts Alliance since January 2013. He came from the Delaware Art Museum, where he had been the manager of public relations and marketing from 2006 to 2010. He took a two-year MFA program at Rutgers-Camden to sharpen his skills in fiction writing. He brought his expertise in media relations and outreach to the Arts Alliance, and he's been busy spreading the word ever since.
“When this job came up, it was perfect,” he said. “they were interested in having a person who had a PR background, but who also had the creative background with the MFA. I feel a connection to the artists here, even though I'm not a visual artist. I understand that, in order to be creative, you need a place that's stable. That's kind of my job – be a good administrator, keep the place sailing smoothly, so that people have a place to come and be creative.”
Lawson and his wife, Beth Ann Ryan, now live in Newark. “My wife and I are from Connecticut,” he said. “I got my MA in English from the University of Delaware. She ended up getting her degree in library science at the University of Maryland. We both found jobs down here and we loved Newark, so we decided, 'Let's not leave.'”
One of the most popular programs at the Arts Alliance is the Camp Imagine arts day camp for children ages 7 to 11. It's held for two weeks in August, and has outgrown the Main Street space. It's held at the Newark Center for Creative Learning and attracts up to 36 kids who learn about visual arts and performing arts, culminating with a performance for parents at the end of the session.
There's also “Art To Go,” a monthly outreach to mothers and children at the Emmaus House women's shelter, when children can take craft classes for free. Students at the Delaware School for the Deaf have been benefitting from classes in clay offered by the Arts Alliance.
The Arts Alliance is part of Newark Community Day, the Taste of Newark and other city events thanks to a strong working relationship with mayor Polly Sierer and the city administration. “She's been great – she's interested in working with us and making sure the city can help us bring art to the community,” Lawson said. “We have a nice relationship with the business community, too. We draw people with our exhibitions and our events. Then those people go out and visit the restaurants on Main Street.”
The open door of the Arts Alliance means that beginners and established artists can find a home.
“We provide a place for people to express their creativity and also display their creativity,” Lawson said. “If you're at the beginning of trying to express yourself, you can take classes here. If you're a little further along, for some people, this is the first place they exhibit. If you're even further along than that, this is a place where you can exhibit regularly and also be selling your artwork. We're always looking to bring more people in.”
The Newark Arts Alliance is at 276 E. Main St. in Newark. They are open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 302-266-7266 or visit www.newarkartsalliance.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.