The Newark Arts Festival’s Bold Leap to Virtual Platform

Photo credit John Amadi

November 22, 2020—Last month, the Newark Arts Festival boldly took the leap to the virtual platform, holding its annual three-day event online. It was a major undertaking, and I believe the readers of Arts & Culture Connections can benefit from some of the behind-the-scenes insights Marcy DePina has to share.

Marcy is the President of the Board of Directors for Newark Arts, and rolled up her sleeves to help co-produce the Festival. Her passion for the arts and activism has been the driving force behind her commitment to use art as a vehicle for positive change. Founder of FORSA Media Group, for the past 15 years Marcy has specialized in event and multi-media production; deejaying; public relations; marketing, and social media. Her clients have included the United Nations, 92YTribeca, Central Park Summerstage, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Festival Mawazine, Festival of Casablanca in Morocco, and the Kriol Jazz Festival in Cabo Verde.

Fluent in four languages, Marcy has received numerous honors, including the “Social Media Influencer of the Year Award” from the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Marcy and I recently discussed the process of taking a major outdoor event virtual, and the lessons learned.

Donna Walker Kuhne: For people who are not familiar, please tell us about the Newark Arts Festival.

Marcy DePina: The Newark Arts Festival is a time when the city of Newark comes alive with creativity, art, and culture. Formerly known as Open Doors, the festival was initiated to celebrate Newark artists, galleries and arts institutions, and invite people into the galleries and studios for exhibits and tours. It is produced by Newark Arts, in collaboration with other cultural, civic and corporate partners. Thousands of people from Newark and beyond not only participate, but they also look forward to it. The Festival marked its 19th anniversary this year.

Donna: What shifts or changes did you have to make as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Marcy: Initially it was thought that the Newark Arts Festival would be cancelled for 2020; that we would pick back up in 2021, especially because the Festival budget was reduced by two-thirds. Then Lauren LeBeaux Craig, the Director of Marketing and Artistic Initiatives for Newark Arts, had the vision of creating a virtual gallery. With the support of the rest of the Newark Arts staff and Executive Director Jeremy Johnson, we quickly pivoted and embarked on the momentous task of developing a virtual Festival.

We really wanted to be able to forge ahead and build on Newark’s legacy of innovation by creating something unique and impactful. We also wanted to lead the way in helping our arts community imagine different ways to create and present art amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive movement for social justice.

Donna: What was your role with the Arts Festival?

Marcy: I served as co-producer with Lauren and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, curator of American Art for the Newark Museum of Art. My specific focus was programming—curating the featured artists, as well as conceptualizing and producing panel discussions and events that took place during our week-long Festival.

The virtual gallery was created by Newark based artists Wolfgang Gil of The Honk-Tweet with support from Sindy Sanchez, the graphic and tech guru at Newark Arts. Sindy was responsible for all the festival graphics, building out the microsites for the artists, and managing the festival website.

Donna: Given the logistical considerations and the virtual platform, how did you work with the artists?

Marcy: Normally, there is an application process or open call for artists seeking to be featured in exhibition during the Festival. However, due to space constraints in the virtual gallery, we opted to limit the open call. Ultimately, 20 artists were selected to be featured.

One of them was Bisa Butler. Her work titled “The Warmth of Other Sons,” which was commissioned by the Newark Museum of Art had its debut at the festival.

We also saw incredible innovation and creativity in all of the exhibits curated to represent the 2020 Festival’s theme, which was “Art + Tech.” From Layqua Lunar Yawar’s “Across la Tierra” virtual reality exhibit, to the surreal collage work of Luis Alves, and everything in between, we witnessed the artists using the opportunity of a virtual exhibition to explore new ways of creating and expressing.

Each artist’s work was displayed in the Newark Museum of Art’s virtual gallery. Visitors were able to click on an image and enter a microsite featuring a full exhibition of the artist’s work. The microsites allowed each artist to host events and share more information.

In addition to the featured artists, there was an opportunity for other artists to have their events listed on the Festival website. Consequently, there were more than150 events and a week full of fascinating and unique opportunities for attendees to engage with artists.

Donna: Were there any similarities to how the Festival is usually conducted? Any notable differences?

Marcy: In many ways, we were able to replicate the Festival’s normal operations in a virtual space. What was different, however, was that for the first time we could showcase artists who did not physically have to be in the City of Newark for the Festival. Our panel discussions even included artists located in different countries, such Clara Aden, who participated from Lagos, Nigeria.

We also had one in-person, pop-up event titled “Façade as Canvas.” We worked with curator Kobie Procter to develop a large scale photography and poetry exhibition, which was projected on the side of a building in downtown Newark. This event featured performances by poets Jasmine Mans and Kween Moore; music by Janetza Miranda, along with the photography and poetry of 10 other Newark-based artists.

Donna: The Festival traditionally has been a big boost to the local economy. Was that a factor with the virtual platform?

Marcy: We are really proud of the fact that we were able to help bolster the local arts economy by using 82-percent of our budget to contract and pay over 40 local artists and creatives this year. This was a commitment we as organizers made to keep our dollars in our own community, and to provide as much support as possible to our artists during the pandemic.

In addition, the Festival was free for attendees and for participating artists which gave everyone the opportunity to connect, share their work, and show the world what Newark arts looks like.

Donna: The virtual festival received great reviews from the community. To what do you attribute your success?

Marcy: Collaboration was the key to success and we were blessed to partner with the Newark Museum of Art and model the Festival’s virtual gallery after one of their most recognizable spaces.

Working with a limited budget also challenged us to get creative with programming. By building partnerships with New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark Symphony Hall, Shop Newark, Cool Vines Newark and others, we were able to expand our programming scope and engage with our anchor institutions and partners in a more meaningful way.

The Festival would not have been possible without this collaboration with Newark’s anchor institutions, businesses, artists, creatives and sponsors. Technology is here to stay and although it was disappointing not to have an in-person event, we learned that a virtual Festival still provided an incredible opportunity to reach a wider audience and to have more inclusion and artist participation with artists around the country and the world.

Donna: How did you engage locally and grow the resources amidst a pandemic?

Marcy: Partnerships were absolutely crucial to engaging with the local community and promoting the Festival to a wider audience. Cross-promoting initiatives, shows, and curated exhibits allowed us to reach new audiences and artists and invite people to be a part of the Festival.

Analyzing data from previous years and assessing the pandemic environment showed us that most of our audience engages with us us through their mobile devices. This information spurred us to develop a robust social media campaign. We partnered with Newark Arts Board Member and hip-hop artist/activist Dupré “Doitall” Kelly of the legendary Lords of the Underground. He allowed us to use his song, “The Life,” and the accompanying video to help promote the Festival on social media and our website.

Our tech guru Sindy made our Festival logo and graphics available to participants so that the artists could use the logo on their flyers and websites. This also helped to further engage our audience.

Combining all of these elements helped us generate great interest in the Festival, which ultimately made for a very successful turn out of participants and Festival visitors.

Donna: What are your plans for 2021? What do you envision as the future for Newark Arts Festival?

Marcy: The Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and we have so much to celebrate—20 years of outstanding talent, growth, and blazing trails!

We hope to be on the other side of the pandemic by next year. Still, I believe the future Festival definitely will be a hybrid—featuring both live and in-person galleries and events, as well as a virtual component. We learned so much through this process—most important, we learned that difficult times bring out the best in us.

Donna: Thank you so much, Marcy!

I have had the honor of serving on the board of Newark Arts for about 3 years, and I’m the current Vice President. I am so proud of this great effort and I urge you to check out the festival offerings, many of which are still online via this link. As always, I would like to know what you think. Please share your comments below.

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