An Artful Path to Redevelopment

June 17, 2011

By Michelle Knapik
Environment Program Director

Art met industrial history and invited the City of Paterson, aka Silk City, to re-imagine itself, to connect past and present, and to listen to voices and visions of transformation. Last Saturday, the Paterson Arts Council curated…Paterson! The 2011 Arts Walk came to life as volunteers converted vacant mills, green spaces, restaurants and businesses into compelling exhibition spaces.

To lovers of urban architecture, Industry Mill, Congdon Mill and Harmony Mill are in and of themselves art in terms of early twentieth century architectural design, but to most, they stand as abandoned relics of Paterson’s past glory. During the Art Walk, though, floor after floor of mill space was punctuated by visual art, performance art, music and poetry. The event was, in essence, a one day pass to peer into the industrial past, be inspired by more than 200 artists, and think about the potential of the mills to permanently support the creative, industrious and immigrant spirit of the city.

The vaulting ceilings, the sometimes painted, sometimes exposed brick, the near full story windows, the interior columns – these stunning, sometimes eerie features provided the blank slate for the exhibitions. Clearly, the art work graced the buildings, but at times the architectural elements graced the paintings, photographs and installations.

I spent most of my time in Industry Mill – an expansive and impressive five story edifice that alone showcased 45 artists. Climbing the stairs, I passed old work safety posters, which ushered in thoughts of productivity and manufacturing madness.

But one foot in the converted space and the thoughts turned to the arts as a force for social change. One installation featured images of abandoned spaces, another focused on mixed wood and paint for a grounded whimsical effect.

A board member of the Paterson Arts Council, Giovawna Cecchetti, talked about her 1995 “shadow series” that brought her face to face with emotional wounds that had kept her from facing her future. Her newer series on healing themes defines her now, but the shadow series spoke to the space and the notion of confronting the past and present in order to permanently convert these buildings into new uses.

The artists and Arts Council members have no shortage of what they’d like to see happen in these spaces. Artists studios, teaching and training space, artist housing, exhibition space. They want arts to anchor and stimulate the rebirth of these old buildings, as well as to serve as an economic engine for the city.

A similar event is about to take place this weekend in Trenton. Art All Night 2011 will transform the Roebling Wire Works factory and its environs into a 24 hour gallery and exhibition experience (from 3 pm on Saturday, June 18, to 3 pm on Sunday, June 19). The event features more than 800 diverse artists and various art mediums. Art re-awakens the historic factory space and signals that Trenton’s creative class is ready to fuel broader scale redevelopment.

These initiatives are becoming signature events in New Jersey’s older industrial centers. They attract and provide benefits for local and global artists. They build community and bring a sense of celebration to these urban spaces. They may be temporary exhibitions, but they result in lasting impacts and social change.

How are arts affecting redevelopment in the places you know and love?

Link here for a video and report on the Arts Walk.

Link here to connect with Sustainable Jersey to see how your town can earn points toward certification by incorporating Arts, Culture and Historic Preservation efforts.

Link here to explore Creative New Jersey’s first series of answers to the question of how creativity and innovation can revitalize New Jersey.