Commentary: Morris County should reopen the Atrium Gallery

Charles Craig (seated, tan outfit) with East Orange kids mentored by Omega Psi Phi, at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Charles Craig (seated, tan outfit) with East Orange kids mentored by Omega Psi Phi, at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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By Carrie Stetler

I was disturbed to hear about the closing of Art in the Atrium, a 26-year tradition in Morris County and the largest exhibition of black artists in the region. It attracted well-known and emerging artists to Morristown and served as a cultural and educational resource in the county and beyond.

In June, a decision was made to end the Atrium Gallery, which hosted several annual shows, including the Student Art Show for high schoolers.

Visitors admire artworks at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Visitors admire artworks at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Morris County Freeholders chose to terminate Morris Arts contract to manage the gallery. Although freeholders said at their Jan. 23, 2019, meeting that the vote was public, there are conflicting accounts of whether there was an actual vote in open session.

In any case, the decision was apparently made without input from the public, educators and the artists themselves. Although the decision applied to all exhibitions at the atrium, it seemed to focus on Art in the Atrium more than others.

At last week’s meeting, Freeholder Director Douglas Cabana justified the vote by citing a lawsuit brought by artist Gladys Grauer, who in the 2008 sued the county for removing her work from an Art in the Atrium show.

Kevin Kahwaty receives best in show award at the 2018 Blackwell Street Student Show in Morristown. Photo by Jeff Sovelove.
Kevin Kahwaty receives best in show award at the 2018 Blackwell Street Student Show at the Atrium Gallery in Morristown. Photo by Jeff Sovelove.

Her painting, which Cabana described as a portrait of a “cop killer,” depicted Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, and Leonard Peltier, a Native American sentenced to life for the murder of FBI agents in South Dakota.

Both figures are controversial, with many questions surrounding their innocence and the fairness of their trials.

According to Morristown Green, the decision to end the Atrium gallery was based on the concerns of judiciary officials, who feared that work they deemed political could sway jurors.

The freeholders’ decision and the concerns of judiciary officials raise many questions.

‘I Am a Man’’ by Erik J. Montgomery, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘I Am a Man’’ by Erik J. Montgomery, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

What sort of artwork is considered “political” and what qualifies as absent of politics? Is work by black artists referencing American history and black identity considered political? Is that because it’s displayed in a county where the majority of residents are white?

Would officials in Essex County, where there are more black residents, view those images the same way? Would work by veterans be considered “political” and potentially prejudicial to jurors?

Even if some art work expressed political beliefs, would that preclude them entirely from being displayed? How does freedom of speech enter into all of this?

Some people would consider art that depicts George Washington political, especially since Washington and other Revolutionary War figures were slave owners. For many, this raises questions about what images are deemed worthy of honoring publicly.

Artist Stephen B Ellis meets a fan at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artist Stephen B Ellis meets a fan at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

County officials don’t seem to have explored or discussed any of this before making their decision. I hope that art can return to the Atrium. But even if it does, the annual Art in the Atrium show did not take place this year, and other shows also might have to wait.

Next time, I hope that, instead of acting on the opinion of a few judiciary officials, they will seek input from the public so other options and points of view can be considered.

Carrie Stetler is a Parsippany resident and former managing editor of HYCIDE, a photojournalism and arts magazine. She also did freelance public relations for Art in the Atrium from 2014 to 2015. 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication. A one-night ‘popup’ version of Art in the Atrium, in memory of the show’s late co-founder, Viki Craig, is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2019, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

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