Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Arts Guild New Jersey

Visitors attend the opening reception of COMMUNITY: Members, Faculty & Student Show at Arts Guild New Jersey, June 2012. Photo by Angelito David

Rahway, New Jersey, is only a half-hour from the world-famous arts institutions of New York City. But it's a smaller organization even closer to home that has helped define Rahway as an arts community.

The Arts Guild New Jersey opened its doors in 1999, partially to help anchor the then-nascent Rahway Arts District. Since then, the Arts Guild has become a popular gallery space, exhibiting the work of New Jersey artists and sponsoring juried competitions. In addition, the Guild trains the next iteration of the state's artists through a range of art classes for  children and adults. We spoke with Arts Guild Executive Director Lawrence Cappiello about the relationship between art and community, and how the Arts Guild has helped revitalize his hometown.

NEA: If you could describe the local art scene in a few words, what would they be?

LAWRENCE CAPPIELLO: Dynamic, quality, diverse, accessible. Nice bunch.

NEA: Why did you think it was important to open Arts Guild New Jersey and bring art to the community?

CAPPIELLO: This area of New Jersey has very little in terms of quality visual arts or educational opportunities or different kinds of music. There are a few commercial clubs, there is a very big and well-funded arts center in the northern part of our county, but they don't necessarily serve the same constituency that we found has built up around us. So availability, that was one thing that we could provide; [we could] make things available. And also for visual artists, [we could] give them hopefully an exciting gallery opportunity to show their work to a new audience in an area that they don't necessarily reach because of the lack of space, or places that show this kind of work.

Our city had a mayor [James Kennedy] who left office two years ago. He was a five-term mayor, and he basically invented the redevelopment plans for the city, which included an arts district. And he came to me, and four other people in 1997, and asked us to start a second nonprofit arts center to co-anchor the district with the [Union County Performing Arts Center] that we have here in town. So also the city redevelopment efforts were kind of tied to this and it provided me with the opportunity to possibly be of service to the town where I did grow up and live for the first 16 or 17 years of my life.

NEA: You mentioned that the mayor had approached you about integrating the arts into the city's redevelopment. How do you think the arts have been used to help revitalize Rahway?

CAPPIELLO: The arts district that seems to be growing up right now is creating an incredible volume of programming in music, in dance, in theater, in visual arts, and educational opportunities. So we're really achieving a kind of critical mass that offers people an awful lot in the arts in one place.

I think in terms of the growth of the town, the revitalization of the town, this is something that will also feed the bits of retail that are here, and restaurants and other businesses will benefit from this. In terms of the people, our art classes have been getting a 50 percent increase in registration in the last year and a half, and I'm finding that most of our students come from within about ten towns in our county, and then parts of the counties to our north and south. So we're finding that people are looking for these things, for these opportunities, and do want to learn, do want to see new things, are interested in the arts.

I think right now, a lot of it is about creativity. This is a quality of life thing that's not based on income or gender or anything else. Rahway itself has kind of a blue-collar reputation, and it's something that's changing. The association of the arts with Rahway has a very beneficial effect in terms of people's perception of the town, and the desirability not only of coming here but possibly living here…. It's all had a very positive effect, and right now there's an awful lot of energy going into all of this, and a lot of people getting on board and being very excited about the arts being here, and what's being shown to them, and what's being offered for them. So I think it's a new day and dawn for the town in a lot of ways. It's a new opportunity for the city to be recognized for a number of different things, including the arts.

NEA: How do you choose which exhibitions to show?

CAPPIELLO: The exhibits that I put together myself, I largely look for a theme or a topic that I think will be accessible to people. We hope to show them something new about something that they think they know about, which very often is what a lot of visual artists do. They take something that could even be largely ignored, but show it in a new light, and provide a new insight into something. We've done shows about food, about money, about animals, about homes and housing. Other shows are chosen by medium. So each show is developed uniquely, and a lot of the artists that get involved, or the guest curators that get involved, work with us to develop the theme and broaden it, so that it has many different facets to it. So if people come here, they won't just see something redundant, one work after another, but a real range of works in a variety of mediums and styles that will be informative of the idea of the chosen topic of the show.

NEA: Why is it important for the community to support New Jersey artists?

CAPPIELLO: I don't think this is particular to any one town. I think what's been proven by the fact that art still exists is that there's something fundamental about art to the human condition, and to the understanding of what our nature is as human beings. I think that's what the arts can show, whether it's music which inspires us and makes us move, whether it's theater that presents an idea. The ideas of each age are brought out primarily through their arts. And I think we get an opportunity to see the reflection of ourselves and the lives that we live through the art that we surround ourselves with. And that's one reason why I think it should be everywhere, let alone here.

It just so happens that because of the town's agenda, we're located at this location and we're doing our best to provide that exact type of opportunity to as many people as want to come to visit us. It's all about looking at the life that we live, and I think that's one of the great values of art, is that it can provide insights into our living experience. That's why it's existed for pretty much the duration of our stay on this planet. Right now, there's a phenomenal outburst of artistic energy worldwide. I don't know exactly why at this period in time. It's rather remarkable. But it seems an awful lot of energy worldwide is being poured into the creation of new artworks in a wide, wide, wide range of mediums. We've surrounded ourselves for centuries with the great art of the world, and our architecture, and our museums, and our public places. I think [the AGNJ] is just a natural continuation of that.


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