By Rory Pasquariello–
Think back to a decade ago in Bayonne. There’s a good chance that you, the reader, can’t do it because you didn’t live here. If you have been in Bayonne, you remember the cultural stagnation, the abandoned warehouses, the empty storefronts, or the broken-down cars parked in the same spot for years. Now, the city is changing, partly thanks to artists who were here all along sowing those seeds. The difference today, what the newcomers experience, is a social cohesion among artists who were once fragmented.
Two residents at the forefront of the nascent arts movement in Bayonne has been Cheryl and Christopher Mack, who co-founded the Bridge Arts Gallery in 2016 after moving from Brooklyn in 2010. Their gallery quickly became a central cultural hub and they now host dozens of events and an arts festival every year.
Most recently, in June, they curated a public photography exhibit, sponsored by the international Inside Out Project, on the wall separating 8th Street and Route 440 displaying 206, 53-by-36-inch, black-and-white portraits of Bayonne residents from all walks of life. A Bayonne-based photographer, Stephanie Petersen, photographed dozens of residents, absent status signifiers, to celebrate the diversity of the city.
The project may have been the couple’s most ambitious and it shows how a few people can connect artists inside and outside of Bayonne. They achieved a similar goal by bringing to Bayonne Animodules. First created at the Barat Foundation in Newark, the art pieces are colorful animals cut from flat pieces of aluminum and painted by Bayonne artists. The Bayonne versions went on display at the Nassau County Art Museum in the spring. According to Christopher Mack, “The partnership with the Barat Foundation was an extraordinary opportunity to showcase the amazing artistic talent that exists in Bayonne”.
Those two projects are symbolic of a broader tenet of Bayonne arts – inclusivity. The Bridge Art Gallery has been the glue that binds all ethnic and gender identities in the city. Artists like Nupur Nishith, an Indian woman who practices the Indian folk art, Mithila, and the black comic book artists that gathered at the Bridge Arts Gallery to share their experiences on a couple occasions, showcase the full range of artists.
Arts in Bayonne have gone far beyond the canvas. Dancers of various styles and student and professional musicians have performed at the weekly Art in the Park series, also organized by the Bridge Art Gallery.
Social benefits of art
Cultural resources like art galleries, bookstores, libraries and museums are strongly linked to better health, schooling, and security, according to a 2017 study by the University of Pennsylvania. The report shows that cultural assets don’t work alone, but as part of a broader community network of schools, hospitals, and businesses. Through its programming, curation, events, and partnerships, the Bridge Arts Gallery is cemented as part of Bayonne’s social infrastructure.
Institutions on board
BCB Community Bank, one of the Bridge Arts Festivals sponsors, has embraced arts as an anchor institution, helping to fund various projects throughout the city, including at the Bayonne Community Museum. The bank’s main office on Avenue C even has a large street art mural on a wall bordering its parking lot. RWJBarnabas Health, another festival sponsor, has also supported various art projects throughout the city. Most recently, it was the prestigious Bayonne Golf Club hopping on board to enhance Bayonne’s art movement, along with the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies, that teamed up with the Macks to host “Jazz on the Green” at the Scottish links golf course overlooking Bayonne and Manhattan. “We are constantly exploring new collaborations to enhance local culture in Bayonne” says Cheryl Mack. “We strongly believe that Bayonne is more than just a bridge, it is a vibrant community and art is truly alive in Bayonne”.