Social Justice and the Arts in Trenton

Throughout the United States, the last several years have been a time of heightened turmoil and change, when the country has increasingly been forced to confront realities from history and consider what the future will bring on many levels. Issues have come together in a perfect storm that can bring hopelessness or spur action. Trenton has felt the troubles of the times. Poverty has been widespread for decades here. The 2018 shooting at Art All Night brought the city’s and America’s gun violence into sharp focus; and like much of the country in 2020, Trenton reacted with outrage at the never-ending murders of Black Americans by police.

Against this backdrop, one wonders where the arts fit in. Is artistic expression simply a luxury, or is it a positive force for healing and improvement? Several local organizations and individuals work at the crossroads of the arts and social issues. The A-TEAM is an organization that developed as an outgrowth of TASK, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Back in 1989, TASK volunteer Susan Darley had attracted the attention of TASK clients who were interested in art. In 2001, Susan and five self-taught artists from TASK formed an artists’ cooperative that the artists named the A-TEAM. Many more TASK artists have joined the A-TEAM over the years, and the group was offered funding by the TASK Board of Trustees to organize as an LLP that would be directed by the decisions of the artists themselves, who then received 100% of the proceeds from sales of their artwork. The A-TEAM was given an old carriage house at 51 North Stockton Street that became known as Studio 51, and serves as studio and gallery space. The A-TEAM receives donations of supplies, and regularly organizes exhibits at churches, offices, and other outside venues. As with a standard gallery, the studio sells art, takes a commission to support its operations, and takes care of business details such as sales tax. Established professional artists are also welcome to become involved, and the cooperative effort provides mentoring in entrepreneurship and self-promotion, as well as artistic skills.

TASK feeds the soul as well as the body with its involvement in the arts. Jamie Parker, Program Manager for TASK, is enthusiastic about her involvement with TASK’s creative writing and music programs. Years ago, a soup kitchen client started using the computer lab there to write his poetry and found a supportive community. A benefactor also donated instruments and band equipment for use by clients. As it does for the A-TEAM, the soup kitchen hosts weekly sessions for both musicians and writers. Their loosely organized band, the Funktastics, performs at TASK as well as other venues. Jamie started as an Americorps volunteer at TASK in 2001 and later joined as regular staff. She says, “My life’s work is around social justice and its intersection with the arts. I like it that in Trenton there’s a strong arts community, and many of the art venues make a real effort to reach out to underserved people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved.” Some local venues offer free admission to lower-income individuals because they appreciate the importance of making the arts available to all.

Artworks Trenton is one of the city’s most prominent organizations for the visual arts. While professional artists rent studios and have a strong presence at Artworks, the organization encourages participation of the community at large. Art All Night, the summer festival that began in 2007, welcomes work from both professionals and those with no formal art background. The Art All Night website lists among its goals: "Empower artists who would normally not have an opportunity to showcase their artwork in public with a venue to do so;" and "Build community by encouraging people of all different lifestyles, races, and incomes to interact." Otherwise, Artworks makes a decisive stand on issues, with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” prominently painted on its Stockton Street wall that also displays murals by four artists commenting on racial injustice that speaks volumes. The paintings show how art and activism have gone hand in hand to create a positive impact on society and how it will play a major role in the redevelopment of our city.

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