Member Spotlight: Jeremy Johnson

Posted by Linda Lombardi, May 10, 2021 0 comments

Since 2016, Jeremy Johnson has been executive director of Newark Arts, one of the city’s leading nonprofits. The organization makes grants to neighborhood arts programs, produces the award-winning Newark Arts Festival, and advocates for policies to uplift Newark as a city of the arts. During his tenure, Newark Arts has strengthened the city's cultural profile, including the 2020 ranking of Newark among America's Top 10 Arts-Vibrant Communities by the National Center for Arts Research. Johnson led the creation of Newark’s first community cultural plan, Newark Creates, which resulted in the city-sponsored Creative Catalyst Fund to support area artists impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What would you say is your primary responsibility as an executive director?

Jeremy Johnson, photo by Ryarmo Photography. Description: Close-up photo of a smiling person in a blue blazer.My role as head of Newark Arts is to energize our board, staff, community, and stakeholders around an ambitious mission: “to power the arts to transform lives.” Newark and the surrounding area includes a diverse population which has embraced the arts as a means for economic, social, and educational change. It gives me great joy to champion the work of artists and creatives.

Last summer, Newark Arts was one of the partners in a coalition of artists and community organizations that painted two large-scale Black Lives Matter street murals on two of Newark's busiest streets. How can the arts advance equity in communities?

The arts are an incredible tool for fighting for justice and equity. Newark is a city that is 80% Black and Brown. We have a profound cultural past and a tremendously proud and activist population. Last summer, the country witnessed unspeakable injustices and the George Floyd murder. Our arts community rose up in protest. Newark Arts was at the ready to support them. We helped with communications, and we helped funnel funds that were used for paint and supplies.

The street murals were a true collaboration. Mayor Ras Baraka, who is an artist-activist, included the murals in the City’s #MuralsforJustice initiative. The results were compelling “All Black Lives Matter” designs, created by a partnership of Newark Arts, the graphic design program at Rutgers University-Newark, New Arts Justice, Project for Empty Space, the City of Newark, and local artists and supporters.

The project received a Communication Arts 2021 Typography award for the Design, Organization, and Production. Inspired by the “I Am a Man” signs of Memphis sanitation workers striking for equality in 1968, the typography lives 25 feet high. The murals were documented by photographers and videographers who lit up social media.

As a local arts council, we get to provide important platforms for artist-activism advancing equity and justice. We make micro grants to community arts programs via our ArtStart program. We produce the Newark Arts Festival, a 20-year celebration that was voted New Jersey’s Favorite Visual Arts Festival.

We’re proud to support arts that give voice to activism.

Performers in Daryl Stewart’s “Hear Her Roar,” presented by the Newark Arts Festival at Newark Symphony Hall, photo courtesy Newark Arts. Description: Performers on a stage strike poses and sing into a microphone.What would you like people to know about the Newark arts and culture scene?

As a cultural capital, Newark enjoys international anchor institutions such as New Jersey Performing Arts Center, The Newark Museum of Art, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Jazz has always been in the air in Newark. We’ve been a hub for jazz musicians from Sarah Vaughan to Christian McBride since the mid-20th century.

However, what may surprise some readers is the storied history of our visual arts community. Newark Arts began to document that scene with an online arts journal in 2018. Sadly, some favorite galleries have closed—Aljira A Center for Contemporary Arts and City Without Walls. Still, the vibe is strong (certainly before the pandemic) at Gallery Aferro, Project for Empty Space, Paul Robeson Galleries, Index Art Center, and the Black-run Akwaaba Gallery and RyArMo Photography Studio.

What makes the scene different here than other places is our art constantly lifts up social and justice themes—about women, immigrants, Black and Brown people, the LGBTQ community, those impacted by racism, poverty, and more.

But let me add, there’s also joy in the art that emanates from Newark. Currently, there is a New Jersey dance art form that has taken off around the globe called Jersey Club. It’s a revival of a sound that was prevalent in Newark’s clubs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a regular feature of the annual Lincoln Park Music Festival

As we pass the one-year mark of arts organizations being shut down due to COVID-19 and look toward recovery and reconstruction, what opportunities and challenges are at hand for Newark Arts and your community? What strategies are you employing or developing?

The arts and culture community has suffered a huge economic hit as a result of the pandemic. We are particularly sensitive to the plight of individual artists and small-budget organizations. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve partnered with Newark Mayor Baraka to distribute $1.6 million in municipal funds to local artists, small organizations, and creative LLCs.

I must mention supporters who provided extra help. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund helped generate $150,000 in direct support to COVID-impacted artists.

Looking ahead, I see great opportunities for more public art and murals. These projects amplify the cry for social justice and equity. They put artists to work and engage communities outdoors in safe, healthy ways as we emerge from the pandemic. Finally, they generate tourism and economic activity. Check out our partnership at

We will spur more creativity, jobs, and housing in high-potential but underinvested Black and Brown neighborhoods. One example is the culturally-rich Lincoln Park community, home of the near-100-year-old Newark Symphony HallLincoln Park Coast Cultural District—producer of the Lincoln Park Music Festival—and the Newark School of the Arts. Imagine a WPA-style works program that rebuilds a six-acre park as a four-season activated greenspace, trains minority apprentices in historic preservation, and generates housing and small businesses for creatives and artists. Stimulus dollars from Washington, D.C., will be essential. Newark Arts is part of the Lincoln Park Alliance that is working collaboratively to make it happen.

What do you think is the role of a Local Arts Agency in 2021?

Description: The Newark Arts logo.The role of a Local Arts Agency is to strengthen arts and culture within a city or community. That can mean advocacy, funding, programming, advancing arts education, driving public arts, developing affordable live-work space, or all of the above. Newark Arts tends to fall in the latter category of doing all of this. This is a tall order, and constant collaboration is at the heart of our efforts. 

We collaborate with the Mayor. We’ve joined with statewide partners for COVID-19 relief, including Governor Phil Murphy’s New Jersey State Council of the Arts, NJ Economic Development Authority, and NJ Redevelopment Authority. We advocate alongside ArtPride NJ to ensure equitable support for disenfranchised artists and arts organizations.

We’re a Black-led organization serving a mostly Black and Brown community. During this difficult past year, national collectives supported our unique needs, such as the Mid Atlantic Arts Resilience Fund and the Momentum Fund of the United Philanthropy Forum. Core general operating support from Newark-based Prudential and many others has been critical.

In the months ahead, the role of Local Arts Agencies will be complex. We must advocate for more COVID-19 support; facilitate the re-opening of shuttered venues; and reinvigorate support for creatives through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. There are signs of hope! Newark is completing nearly 100 units of housing and combined working spaces for artists and creative “makers” in our West Ward and Central Ward in the next few months.

This is a good thing. A very good thing!

Americans for the Arts Membership

This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to [email protected], or calling 202.371.2830.

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