The art of the deal: African American showcase accepts strict rules for return to Morris gallery

Patrons visiting Art in the Atrium, January 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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A censored art show is better than no art show at all.

That was the decision reached by Art in the Atrium Inc., a prestigious showcase of African American art that exhibited for more than a quarter century in the Atrium Gallery of the Morris County Administration and Records Building in Morristown.

Viki Craig at Art in the Atrium, January 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Viki Craig at Art in the Atrium, January 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

County officials last year ended all art shows in the cavernous space, at the behest of Judiciary officials concerned that provocative art would conflict with the building’s growing use as a courthouse.

Art in the Atrium organizers plan to return with a two-month show on March 20, 2020 — under strict guidelines approved by the county Freeholders last week after months of negotiations.

The new rules designate nonprofit arts advocacy group Morris Arts as screener, though the Judiciary and Freeholders retain the “unequivocal right to veto the display of any art” they deem “inappropriate.”

That doesn’t sit too well with some of the artists.

Featured artist Leroy Campbell at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Featured artist Leroy Campbell at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Once you open that door, there’s no way to shut it, and there’s no way to control it, because they leave it too open-ended… Art is supposed to educate, motivate, antagonize, bring thought, challenge ideas, be in opposition,” said Leroy Campbell, an Atlanta-based artist who has exhibited at Art in the Atrium since 1995.

Campbell noted that he incorporates press clippings into his collages. Would a headline about the 1964 Civil Rights Act cross the line, he asked. What about a reference to blackface? A portrait of writer James Baldwin? Or a painting of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan?

‘Black Business Legacy’ by Leroy Campbell, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘Black Business Legacy’ by Leroy Campbell, Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Art is made as a reaction to our social, political and economic environment, and this veto power could be extremely limiting, biased and exclusionary for artists,” said Bisa Butler, a former Newark schoolteacher who credits Art in the Atrium with advancing her career as a quilter.

Yet Campbell and Butler reached the same conclusion as the organizers:

It’s worth at least one more show at the Atrium Gallery–to introduce a bevy of talented black artists to a diverse audience, and to honor show co-founder Viki Craig, who died last December as the gallery was closing.

Bisa Butler with her quilted homage to Diana Ross, 'La Diva.' Bisa teaches art at American History High School in Newark. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bisa Butler with her quilted homage to Diana Ross, ‘La Diva.’ Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I would love to do a show there in honor of Viki Craig. Even if that’s the last show, I think she deserved that from us,” said Campbell.

The Craig family has not found another venue that combines the easy public access and abundant space of the county Administration and Records Building, which has hosted art on four floors.

Earlier this year, Art in the Atrium was reduced to a one-night “popup” show spotlighting a handful of artists at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

Lauren Craig, Viki’s daughter, said she doubts the new government rules will be an issue.

“People know it’s a courthouse and not a free-standing gallery. I think we can work around whatever restrictions may be in place,” she said.

Lauren Craig addresses Art in the Atrium 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lauren Craig addresses Art in the Atrium 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Her father, Charles Craig, had been critical of the gallery closure. He’s willing to try the changes, which he helped craft.

“Ninety-nine percent of the art that we have exhibited in the Atrium Gallery for the past 27 years would clearly fit within those guidelines,” said the attorney, who started Art in the Atrium with his wife Viki because they seldom saw artists who looked like them represented there.

“The bottom line is, it’s a public space, it’s not our space,” Charles Craig said. Art in the Atrium will alert its artists to the rules, and screen submissions, he said.

“We’ll just have to see how it plays out plays out. Basically it was clear to us that the community — that means the African American community, the art community, the overall community, the Morris County-and-beyond community–really wants to see this continue. And so we’re trying to make sure that that happens,” he said.

‘NO BULLETS. NO OBVIOUS POLITICAL STATEMENTS’

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement that will give arts groups an opportunity to showcase their work in a manner that still allows the Judiciary to maintain its neutrality in the eyes of the public,” Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz said in a statement.

From left, Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, Charles Craig, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, Charles Craig, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig’s life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At Viki Craig’s funeral in January, Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel AME Church in Morristown spoke for many who were angered by the gallery closure.

“Write a letter to the judges who think they can judge art,” he implored from the pulpit.

Many did.

But during the talks, Williams said, court officials have driven home their point: The building’s use has changed since Art in the Atrium began. Over time, “it became a courthouse,” said the pastor.

The restrictions, Williams said, boil down to:

“No bullets. No obvious political statements.”

The new guidelines call for a “welcoming, comfortable and inclusive environment” that respects the Judiciary’s “paramount core values (of) independence, integrity, fairness and quality service, which are essential to insuring the fair, impartial and neutral functioning of the courts.”

Specifically prohibited at all art exhibitions in the building:

  • Sexually explicit imagery/nudity;
  • Political opinions;
  • Religious symbols;
  • Violent images;
  • Racially insensitive images;
  • Any works that disparage historically marginalized groups;
  • Any physical components that could be considered weapons; and
  • Any depictions of illegal activity, including illegal drug use.

Morris Arts will screen artworks.  While controversial pieces may be moved to the top floor of the five-story atrium, away from courtrooms, the Judiciary and county “each retain the unequivocal right to veto the display of any art deemed to violate the Judiciary’s core values and/or which are deemed to be otherwise inappropriate for display.”

Objections? Overruled.

“There shall be no process for appealing a decision of the Judiciary and/or the County,” the guidelines state.

‘A VERY STARK PLACE’

Asked how it feels to assume the role of censor, Tom Werder, executive director of Morris Arts, said these are unique circumstances.

Tom Werder of MorrisArts, left, and Bethel AME Pastor Sidney Williams Jr., at annual meeting of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s not a public forum. This is a courthouse. There are limitations because it’s a courthouse. These (art groups) are creative people. They can find works that are amazing and beautiful and still fall within the guidelines the courthouse would impose,” Werder said.

“We’re trying to have an environment that feels safe for anyone who is there for the courts,” he continued.

“They don’t want anything that might unduly influence jurors. We’ll work with leaders of the organizations we work with” to make that clear.

In addition to courtrooms and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, the building houses parole-, probation- and family justice programs.

Morris Arts has presented numerous shows at the Atrium Gallery, including exhibitions of high school art. Other shows have highlighted work by veterans and people with disabilities.

Tom Werder of Morris Arts, Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano, Pastor Sidney Williams Jr., and Morris Freeholder Stephen Shaw at annual meeting of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We just wanted to see art back in the Atrium,” said Freeholder Stephen Shaw. Otherwise, “it’s a very stark place.”

A few disputes have arisen during Art in the Atrium shows.

In the late 1990s, Angry White Mail 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 filed a federal free speech lawsuit in response to opposition over 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 of those trials were controversial.

The county relocated Grauer’s piece within the building, away from the Prosecutor’s Office.

Liability emerged as an issue in the recent talks, according to Williams, who said Morris Arts agreed to indemnify the county against any freedom of speech claims or damage to artworks.

Next year’s show tentatively will run from March 20 through May 15, the Craigs said. (Artists can apply here.)

“It’ll be good to be to be back in the Atrium Gallery,” Charles Craig said. “And hopefully we’ll put on a show that is worthy of Viki, and worthy of the intensity with which the community let us know that they wanted it to continue.”

What follows this 28th annual edition remains to be seen; the Craigs and Art in the Atrium trustees are pondering the future.

Replacing Viki Craig’s energy is no small task, Lauren acknowledged. But her mother’s presence will be felt this spring: A plaque inside the building will be dedicated to the former schoolteacher, Pastor Williams said.

“That’s a wonderful thing,” said Lauren Craig. “I know (my mom) is really happy about that.”

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