Pastor to Morris officials: Revive Art in the Atrium to honor its late founder, Viki Craig, patron of African American artists,

Viki Craig, co-founder of 'Art in the Atrium,' with 'Hagar's Dress,' an artwork by Janet Taylor Pickett. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Viki Craig, co-founder of 'Art in the Atrium,' with 'Hagar's Dress,' an artwork by Janet Taylor Pickett, in 2013. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Viki Craig, co-founder of Art in the Atrium Inc., was eulogized with eloquence, passion and love at her funeral in Morristown last week.

And there was anger: As family and friends grappled with their grief, they also were mourning the death of the showcase for African American artists that Craig helped create 26 years ago.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. calls for Morris officials to restore Art in the Atrium, to honor its late co-founder, Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. calls for Morris officials to restore Art in the Atrium, to honor its late co-founder, Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Bowing to wishes of a state judge, Morris County officials have spiked any future exhibitions at the Atrium Gallery, the county venue in Morristown where aspiring and well known black artists have shown their work nearly every January for more than a quarter-century.

The gallery’s mammoth hallways fill four floors of the county Administration and Records Building–which also houses some courtrooms.

Judiciary officials expressed concerns that artworks might influence jurors, according to Art in the Atrium, and Morris officials quietly decided last summer to halt exhibitions in 2019.

A spokesman for Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz said the sole concern was about maintaining confidence in the judicial system.

“Litigants who visit the courthouse hold a variety of political beliefs and opinions. It is not appropriate for the Judiciary to endorse political expression. The public needs to have confidence that the courts are a neutral arbiter,” Pete McAleer of the state Administrative Office of the Courts said in a statement.

When art exhibits began in the Atrium, the judiciary had a small footprint in the building. “We now have a large presence there,” McAleer said.

Monday was the last day of the Morris Arts Winter Invitational Show–the final art display in the Atrium Gallery.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. implored mourners who packed his Bethel A.M.E. Church for Craig’s funeral last Thursday to contact county and judicial officials.

“How can you say that art is going to influence the jury? I’m saying, write a letter. Write a letter to your freeholders. Write a letter to the judges who think they can judge art,” Williams said from the pulpit.

‘Write to the freeholders’: Video by Emerson Simon for MorristownGreen.com:

Craig, a retired 3rd grade teacher, died two days after Christmas, at age 71 from a rare hereditary disease called amyloidosis. The best way to honor her, Williams said, is “to have another exhibit at the Atrium.”

“It’s not called Art in the Library. Or Art in the Church. It’s called Art in the Atrium. And that’s where it ought to be,” the pastor declared.

ART-FREE ZONE: Paintings are gone from the Atrium Gallery on the last day of the last exhibition there, Jan. 7, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
ART-FREE ZONE: Paintings are gone from the Atrium Gallery on the last day of the last exhibition there, Jan. 7, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A spokesman for the county government said employees enjoyed seeing art in the building, but the judiciary’s concerns could not be dismissed.

“The judge felt strongly it was not a good mix to have it be an art gallery when in his opinion it’s a courthouse… We take him seriously. Our goal, reluctantly, was to make a decision,” said Larry Ragonese, communications director for the county.

Craig and her husband, Morristown lawyer Charles Craig, established Art in the Atrium because they were not seeing black artists represented in the public space.

Their show became one of the largest celebrations of African American art on the east coast. Art careers were launched at an annual reception that was a highlight of the winter calendar, attracting a diverse audience warmly welcomed by the Craigs and their daughters, Simone and Lauren.

‘A TRAGEDY’

“Meeting so many African American artists is a huge positive for Morris County,” said Leonard Posey, a trustee of the Morris School District board. “People would come from all over to see fine art and meet the artists. Not to have that opportunity is a tragedy.”

Charles Craig said his wife was saddened in her final months knowing the Atrium Gallery was closing, and with it, Art in the Atrium.

“I think Viki was surprised they didn’t recognize the value and maybe the reputation of the exhibits there, particularly Art in the Atrium,” Charles Craig said.

While voicing respect for the courts, the attorney noted that courtrooms occupy only one floor of the building.

“I think it’s specious reasoning to say you can’t have art because jurors may see it. They are instructed to make decisions based only on evidence admitted at trial,” he said.

Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz informs rape suspect Brian K. Session of his rights, Jan. 24, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz, pictured in January 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Art can be provocative, and there has been occasional friction, Viki Craig acknowledged in a 2017 interview with Morristown Green.

“I thought they’d throw us out of the courthouse, never to be seen again,” after exhibiting Angry White Mail in the late 1990s.  The piece by the late Russell Murray riled the county Surrogate and others who felt felt it denigrated the American flag. The Morris freeholders sided with the exhibit.

In 2007, Newark artist Gladys Barker Grauer faced opposition when she submitted a painting depicting Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of killing a police officer, and native American Leonard Peltier, convicted of murdering FBI agents. Both trials were controversial.

The artist filed a federal free speech lawsuit, which the county settled by relocating the piece within the building, away from the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office. The freeholders then hired the county arts council, now known as Morris Arts, to oversee future exhibitions.

Tom Werder presents award to Viki Craig of Art in the Atrium at 'Celebrate the Arts 2016.' Photo by Kevin Coughlin , March 30, 2016
Tom Werder of Morris Arts presents award to Viki Craig of Art in the Atrium at ‘Celebrate the Arts 2016.’ Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Morris Arts has presented numerous Atrium shows since then, including the Blackwell Street Juried Student Exhibit, culled from 20 schools across Morris County.

Arts Unbound and the Matheny Arts Access program have shown works by artists with disabilities. Combat Paper displayed creations by veterans who fashioned statements from bits of their military uniforms.

Faith Ringgold and Bascove are among the high-profile artists hosted by Morris Arts. Art in the Atrium helped advance the careers of David Driskell, Janet Taylor Pickett, Bisa Butler and Leroy Campbell, among others.

“We’re terribly sad a decision was made to stop all of the artwork in the Atrium Gallery,” said Tom Werder, executive director for Morris Arts. “It’s very hard for us to say goodbye to the Atrium Gallery.”

ALTERNATE SITES?

County officials suggested the Morris County Library in Whippany as an alternate site. But it’s not large enough to accommodate shows such as Art in the Atrium, nor is it as easily accessible as the Atrium Gallery, said Dr. Lynn Siebert, curator of Morris Arts exhibits at the Atrium.

Morris Arts also has explored Headquarters Plaza in Morristown. If you have a venue suitable for hundreds of artworks, Werder said, he’s ready to visit. 

Art came to the administration building some three decades ago thanks to the late Freeholders Leanna Brown and Patricia Maynard, according to Morris Arts.

‘It Starts Here’ by Leroy Campbell, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘It Starts Here’ by Leroy Campbell, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In a statement last month, the nonprofit said it was informed by Morris County Administrator John Bonanni’s office that the freeholders “voted in a June 2018 closed session to terminate Morris Arts’ contract to manage the Atrium Gallery, thus ending Morris County’s unique, free public art gallery.”

Ragonese, the county’s spokesman, said the matter was handled administratively, without an actual vote.

Many county employees will miss the Atrium Gallery, he added.

“Some of the best art work seen in the county has been seen right here in this building. We’ve enjoyed having them here,” Ragonese said of the artists.

But the court system is overloaded, he said. While the county considers expanding its historic courthouse–a public hearing is scheduled this week–the administrative building has become an “ancillary courthouse.” 

In addition to court rooms and the Prosecutor’s Office, the building houses parole-, probation- and family justice programs. A jury assembly room may be next, Ragonese said.

Superior Court Judge Michael Wright delivers a eulogy for Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Superior Court Judge Michael Wright delivers a eulogy for Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, who choked back tears to deliver a moving eulogy for Viki Craig, said the Craigs treated him like a son for 25 years.

While his position precluded him from commenting on the Atrium Gallery situation, “I know how near and dear to their hearts Art in the Atrium is,” Wright said. “Victoria Craig was a trailblazer.”

 

‘Honesty from a place of love’: Judge remembers Viki Craig. Video by Kevin Coughlin

Others at the funeral spoke more bluntly.

Keisha Johnson and artist Leroy Campbell at Calvary Baptist Church reception, after Viki Craig funeral service, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Keisha Johnson and artist Leroy Campbell at Calvary Baptist Church reception, after Viki Craig funeral service, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Hurt. Appalled. Astonished. Disappointed,”  Keisha Johnson, owner of the Shear Bliss beauty salon in Dover, responded when asked about the apparent demise of Art in the Atrium. “That show is something the community looks forward to.”

It’s where she discovered artist Leroy Campbell, whose works she collects. Campbell flew up from Atlanta to pay his final respects to Viki Craig.

“The thing she created, if that leaves too, that’s too much. Art is a catalyst that brings people together,” Campbell said.

Plainfield artist Alonzo Adams, whose patrons included Maya Angelou, Wesley Snipes, Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing, was part of the first Art in the Atrium exhibition and had the spotlight in 2016.  It’s a shame to lose a platform with such broad reach, he said.

Art in the Atrium trustee Andrea Lekberg discusses the organization's funeral with Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. after funeral of co-founder Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Art in the Atrium trustee Andrea Lekberg discusses the organization’s funeral with Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. after funeral of co-founder Viki Craig, Jan. 3, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“What people don’t understand, they try to change. If they can’t change it, they try to destroy it. They don’t agree with our art, they try to destroy it,” Adams said.

Andrea Lekberg, owner of the Artist Baker cafe in Morristown, serves on the board of Art in the Atrium.

She hopes to keep Viki Craig’s show alive with a one-night “pop-up” version, possibly at the Mayo Performing Arts Center and the Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen next month.

“The most important thing is not to lose the momentum,” Lekberg said.

MORE ABOUT ART IN THE ATRIUM

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1 COMMENT

  1. Will they return Art to the Atrium?, is a question the 3 incumbent freeholders, running for reelection, should be asked.

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