Jeremy Johnson has spent the last five years as a dynamo making Newark a work of art among American cities.
Now that the director of the nonprofit cultural organization Newark Arts is moving to another city, all he has to do is look around the city to see how he’s helped transform Newark’s landscape.
“I started here long ago that just saying you were coming or living in Newark would raise an eyebrow. Nobody really says that anymore. Newark is a contender now,” said Johnson, a Newark resident, who Just weeks from the start His new job was leading the Emerging Congregation for the Arts, an alliance of leading nonprofit arts agencies in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
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“I’ll take the lessons I learned here to where I go next.” he said. “I owe that gratitude to Newark.”
Johnson’s record as the leading arts administrator in Newark shows his longstanding commitment to the city. When he first arrived in Newark in 1996, he worked for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in development and community relations prior to opening in 1997. He also served as philanthropic liaison for then Newark Mayor Cory Booker before joining Newark Arts in 2016.
Over the past five years, Newark has made significant advances in art as the city continues to revitalize and redevelop. The National Center for Arts Research named Newark one of the ten most artistically vibrant cities in America.
According to research by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit focused on promoting the arts, Newark arts and arts institutions have created 5,000 jobs and generated $ 178 million in annual economic activity. Under Johnson’s leadership, Newark Arts’ budget rose from $ 500,000 to $ 2.2 million.
But while the economics of the arts does matter, Johnson sees many things about the arts that have greater value.
“It’s good for business, but it’s also good for the soul. Think about how much creativity encourages us all, especially now,” said Johnson. “People have turned to art – be it music, films, or paintings – to get them through the pandemic. And it will continue to get us through as we get out of COVID.”
Johnson looks forward to a post-pandemic world where the inherent populism of the arts, especially in a city like Newark, can be linked to the kind of politics that are bringing cities back to life.
“The point where cities and art work together is that different types of people symbolically and physically compete against each other. We need to get to know each other again without standing behind screens and computers,” said Johnson. “That is the vitality of the cities. That is the effect of the arts. That is part of the contribution to a flourishing democracy that I keep thinking about right now.”
In the time he spent in Newark before starting his new job, Johnson will get to know the city he has come to love again. He walks or drives from his Society Hill home to places like NJPAC, Newark Symphony Hall, Gallery Aferro, Akwaaba Gallery, and the Empty Space Project, and stops at the annual Newark Arts Festival that attracts thousands of people each year Newark pulls.
He’ll be exploring Newark neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Clinton Hill, and Fairmount, areas included for arts and economic expansion under the Newark Creates Plan, a collaboration with the city government designed to drive economic and artistic development supposed to be the changing city.
Johnson might even stop by the Ironbound for some of the sangria he’d developed a taste for while in Newark.
But now Cleveland is calling. Johnson’s return home will be wonderful for the extended family that awaits him, including his sister, three brothers, and a group of nieces and nephews. His departure will be bittersweet for the family he made here.
In the end, Johnson’s Cleveland upbringing gave Newark a gift.
“The person who inspired my relationship with Newark was Cleveland,” said Johnson. “My brother and I stole on Saturday and went to the Cleveland Museum of Art for free. I couldn’t sleep for days before going on a field trip to see an orchestra or a play. I was so excited.
“Newark has been a romance for me. I love being on the city streets and watching the arts bloom and bloom,” said Johnson. “Coming from Cleveland and being here led to my love, my marriage to Newark. I still love Newark. I always will.”