In the early 1930s, a group of seven New Jersey painters rented a loft space in the small city of Summit and transformed it. One room became a large studio. Another was a small gallery.
“They wanted a place to show their art,” explains Anne Ortengren, communications director of the organization that the group eventually morphed into: the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “They wanted a place where they could go, have a dialogue, and give people an opportunity to come.”
Over the next few decades, the group saw its membership blossom, its name change, and its location in Summit move a few times. But more than 80 years after it was founded, the goal of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey remains the same.
“Our mission statement is to bring arts and people together,” says Katherine Murdock, the organization’s exhibitions manager.
Now located in a 24,000-square-foot building on Elm Street, the non-profit arts center doubles as a gallery and an art school, attracting 60,000 visitors a year. It continuously hosts exhibitions and offers classes on everything from drawing and painting to jewelry-making and photography.
During the fall and spring, the center’s galleries are usually devoted to curated shows featuring the work of nationally and internationally renowned artists. Currently, there are exhibitions from three New Jerseyans — Jon Rappleye, Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern, and Thea Clark — on display through the end of the month.
But summer brings a tradition that’s lasted more than 60 years: the Marlou Hillyer Members Show and Sale. That’s when the Center’s paid members have the chance to submit their own art, see it on display, and sell it to the public.
“Summer is the time we give space to our members as a thank you for their support,” Murdock says. “It becomes a really full gallery. Our members are really eager.”
There isn’t a typical arts center member. Some are students. Some are people who want to pursue a career in art. Others are artists in the area. Perks include attending certain programs and events for free and getting discounts to local businesses.
“It’s a way to establish a connection with other artists in the community,” Ortengren explains. “It’s not only an exposure to world-class exhibitions, but also classes in a variety of mediums with professional working artists.”
For artists starting out, Ortengen says, the center offers an easy transition into a world that can often be daunting.
“A lot of people don’t understand the arts,” she says. “They see it as cultural or elitist. But that’s not the case at all. I think the arts can be very unapproachable. It’s important people understand there are ways to be involved.”
The center accepts up to 200 entries in the members show. You can submit paintings, sculptures, collages, ceramics, jewelry, printmaking, and more.
The deadline is June 20, and the show runs from July 18 to Aug. 28. Artists on display will also have their work judged by Kristen Evangelista, director of galleries at William Paterson University in Wayne, for a chance to win cash prizes.
Summer at the arts center is busy for other reasons, too. Every year, there are camps for kids, teenagers, and adults. And the exhibits featuring renowned artists are on display through June 29.
“In Tangled Splendor” features the paintings of Rappleye, a Jersey City artist whose work depicts mishmashed images of animals — deer, rabbits, owls — in mystical landscapes.
“The Quick And The Deep” features the sculptures of Clark, a Maplewood artist who uses building materials and other found objects to comment on the destruction of weather and climate change — a topic that’s still resonant in New Jersey nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy hit the state.
On June 8, patrons can meet the artists and participate in workshops related to the exhibits.
In July, there will also be live theater. The center is hosting its second season of “Shakespeare In The Garden,” featuring outdoor performances of classic plays put on by members of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
On July 23, it’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Daniel Roberts. On July 28, it’s “The Libation Bearers,” a tragedy by Greek playwright Aeschylus, directed by Awoye Timpo.
Consider it New Jersey’s miniature version of New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park.
“Except there are no long lines,” Ortengren jokes.