Birth of an Arts District

A town in New Jersey is transformed into an engine of creativity by ValleyArts, which is sponsoring an art business workshop with ABI in August.

Richard Bryant

Richard Bryant

The Arts Business Institute spoke with Richard Bryant, Executive Director of ValleyArts on how they are creating a renaissance and opportunities for artists.

ABI: The ValleyArts District of Orange and West Orange New Jersey grew out of a town suffering from the loss of manufacturing jobs. Strategic planning and targeted action have transformed this neighborhood from one filled with vacant factories to a growing arts district. How did this happen?

RB: The creation of the ValleyArts District a decade ago was led by HANDS, Inc (Housing and Neighborhood Development Services), the non-profit, mission-driven real estate development organization founded in Orange 26 years ago.

HANDS initially invested in the most distressed properties in a town that had a downward economic spiral not only from the loss of manufacturing, but from the turbulence in the late 60s after unrest swept the nation’s urban areas. Much of the wealth fled, despite the fact that such towns are located in some of the most well-situated property in the nation’s inner urban metropolitan areas.

Ten years ago, HANDS determined that attracting artists and other creative people to the 15-square block Valley neighborhood could be a powerful catalyst to further economic development in the area, and would eventually help foster a renaissance.

Five years ago HANDS founded a separate nonprofit organization called ValleyArts Inc. to become the arts service and activist organization for the neighborhood. This is the organization I lead.


Studio space in the ValleyArts district

Studio space in the ValleyArts district


ABI: Why did residents in the surrounding area believe the concept of an arts district would breathe new life into the neighborhood?

RB: In this type of work, people generally believe what they see – what is in front of them – what works. Once some of the old manufacturing buildings began to be repurposed as theaters, galleries, artists studios, etc., and were transformed from vacant to alive, the neighborhood began to feel what happens when creative activities are carried out in a manner sensitive to the community.

In recent years, the ValleyArts organization has been able to accelerate the pace of creative involvement in the neighborhood and further focus our message.


Artist Ken Riviere shows work during Hat City Street Festival

Artist Ken Riviere shows work during Hat City Street Festival


ABI: The plans for the ValleyArts District are ambitious. So far, Luna Stage, a well respected institution in the northeastern US has been attracted to the neighborhood and has moved into a purpose-built home for its award-winning work. What else does the ValleyArts District offer?

RB: Arts Unbound, a gallery and training center for differently-abled artists is a state wide asset. And ORNG Ink, an exemplary program that provides after-school arts instruction for teenagers from the surrounding neighborhoods, has gotten a foothold and changed the lives of many talented young people. There are four galleries in the neighborhood and many opportunities for artists to band together to support one another’s work and to learn more about their art and craft.

We are closely allied with the public schools, which provide additional opportunities for artists to find additional work related to their disciplines. And we’re beginning to provide outdoor arts activities in the warmer months that bring the various organizations together to showcase their work.

HANDS has also founded a wonderful restaurant called Hat City Kitchen, which showcases the work of hundreds of regional bands in a variety of musical styles. This restaurant has become the hub for our neighborhood. It is a social enterprise with profits going back into the neighborhood.


The Firehouse Gallery

The Firehouse Gallery


ABI: what has the response been from artists in your area?

RB: In the past several years, more and more artists in this region have become aware of our work and are becoming involved in our programs. Since our job is to help further animate the neighborhood, we are frequently engaged in activities to attract artists to live and work here.

The latest redevelopment project, the adaptive reuse of a 1904 firehouse, now has a working gallery and six live/work studio apartments, all occupied by practicing artists. HANDS has now scheduled several more buildings for completion in the next year.

We will work closely with them regarding the use of these new spaces, including shared artist studio co-ops that will enable artists to have excellent venues for their work, all supported by ValleyArts Inc.

The ValleyArts District is only 30 minutes by train from Penn Station New York. Our train station is right in the middle of the neighborhood. Many artists are now being attracted by the variety of work and living opportunities, the presence of a real and vital artist community, and the fact that the work of creative people is being carried out in an engaged and supportive community. It feels right because it is right.


Youth at classes are taught as well

Youth art classes are part of the program


ABI: Do you have ongoing plans to enhance the ValleyArts District to offer even more to artists of all types?

RB: We have just received word that that the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded us their Our Town Grant, one of about 59 to be awarded this year in the United States. This grant, along with continuing support from New Jersey’s Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, will enable us to stay on track.

We are expanding our services to artists and the neighborhood, and our programs, which include the annual Hat City Streets Festival, in-school residencies by area artists, and the further development of the shared artist studio co-ops, the ValleyArts Firehouse Gallery, the related Orbiting Gallery program, and more.

We also look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with the Arts Business Institute, and remain very excited about the upcoming pilot ABI program at Luna Stage on August 10. These and other programs will help us grow as a hub for regional arts activity.



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  1. Kenneth Riviere says:

    Being part of the Orange Arts District was inr of my greatest moments. Althiugh I have moved on it will remain with me for life.

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