By Peggy Carroll
Charles Craig is an attorney whose work often takes him to the Morris County Administration Building.
And just as often he has viewed the art on the walls, on the floors between two and four, the area known as the Atrium Gallery.
Craig, who is African-American, said he couldn’t help but notice “that none of the images looked like me.”
In fact, there were not even any by African-American artists.
So he decided to do something about it. He and his wife, Victoria, joined with friends Arthur and Jackie Bolden, to put together an exhibit of African- American art for Black History Month
There was no intention, he recalls, of continuing the project beyond that.
What happened still somewhat surprises him. The show proved to be so popular, to attract so many enthusiastic visitors that it stayed up for several months
That was in 1992.
And the first show proved to be exactly that — a “first.”
Now incorporated as the nonprofit organization Art in the Atrium (ATA), the exhibit has returned every year since, drawing both established and emerging artists from across the country and audiences from New York to Washington DC.
It is thought to be the largest showcase of visual African-American art in New Jersey and has given birth to other arts programs – from art education in the schools to jazz brunches.
This week, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, it will mark its 25th anniversary with a gala, fittingly named Silver Soiree, at the Morris Museum, celebrating with its patrons and friends its commitment to support, uplift and provide exposure for African American art in Morris County.
The event also will be the official launch of Rituals and Evocations, a solo show by 78-year-old Philadelphia artist Barbara Bullock, whose intricate creations of paper and paint have been commissioned for the Philadelphia International Airport, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and SEPTA Art in Philadelphia.
Her work is part of the permanent collection of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and institutions from Rutgers to Lafayette College to the Jane Voorhees Zimmer Art Museum.
The gala opens with a dinner – a sell-out, Craig says – with New Jersey native AJ Calloway of NBC’s Extra serving as master of ceremonies. Artists of a different kind, dancers and the string ensemble from the Morristown Neighborhood House will entertain.
This exhibit breaks precedent, Craig noted. It will be held at the Museum, rather than the Atrium – an anniversary special. And it will be the first solo show in its history.
Until now, the exhibit has showcased the work of many artists with multi-faceted talents.
In fact, Craig says, once the idea for the show took root, the first step was to find the art they needed to fill the space.
Here’s where Victoria Craig’s friends came in. She was a member of a group called Black Women in Visual Perspective. Despite its name, there was one outlier: The late Russell Murray.
“He was the only male in the group,” Craig said.
Murray also was a talented artist. He contributed some of his own work and introduced the Craigs and the Bolders (who have since moved to Florida) to other artists. They also gathered art from other artists they knew.
“We brought in and we hung it, “ Craig remembers.
The success of the gallery show brought in other artists who work in many genres of the visual arts.
Atrium exhibits have been diverse: Abstract, sculpture, installation pieces, photos; art on canvas, on wood and metal. “Any form of creative endeavor,” Craig noted.
The show also has won plaudits from the art community as well as the public. Twice –in 2001 and again last year — Art in the Atrium has been named “Arts Organization of the Year” by Morris Arts. Most recently, it was awarded a “culture keeper “ commendation by Bibliophil Inc.
The success of the exhibit led to other endeavors: Seminars for artists and collectors, jazz brunches, and other exhibits. ATA co-sponsors artist residences in the Morris School District for 200- to 500 students each year, awarding an annual scholarship to a student artist, whose work often is exhibited in the show.
And it has established relationships with corporate sponsors who have given their projects support – both financial and moral — from the Morris County Freeholders (who own the county administration building) to Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant.
Novartis owns the largest corporate art collection in the world, Craig said, and Joanne Del Rio, the curator of the collection, has been a supporter of ATA for all of its history. For the past decade, it has conducted what Craig calls “ satellite exhibits” at Novartis.
Del Rio, who has been with Novartis for 28 years, will be among the patrons and supporters who will be awarded “silver” thank you awards during the gala. Hers will be named the “Silver Easel” award.
Others who will be honored:
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), the “Silver Statesman.”
Ralph Alston, CPA, “Silver Dollar.”
Charles and Wanda Stansbury and Dr. Dean Dent and Anita Spivey Dent, “Silver Patrons.”
Morristown Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and Pi Theta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, “Silver Hostesses.”
Morris County Chapter, Jack and Jill of America, “Silver Greetings.”
Martin Little Catering, caterer for the dinner, “Silver Spoon.”
Bullocks’ exhibit will be on view from Jan. 13 to April 23, 2017. Tickets for dessert and the exhibit opening are still available for $75. Call 973-452-2176 or email here.
Next year, the 26th anniversary, Craig said, will be back in the Atrium where it all started.