The Pandemic Stopped People From Going To Art Galleries — So This Woman Brought Art Galleries To The People

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This Woman Brought Art Galleries To Vacant Spaces During COVID-19
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A pandemic can’t stop Susan O’Rourke from bringing art to struggling communities. When COVID-19 hit, she saw an opportunity to dig deeper into her commitment to bringing pop-up art displays to empty galleries in the most struggling neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, through her nonprofit, Artfront Galleries.

The fact that people couldn’t just walk into art galleries and wander through them while chatting with each other and artists, sipping wine, and having hors d’oeuvres, was simply another challenge to take on and overcome with a can-do spirit. 

So O'Rourke organized timed projections on vacant storefronts so people passing by on foot, on the bus, or in vehicles could have access to the art she once brought to the community in person. Anywhere there’s a big blank wall, O’Rourke’s team has the potential to program projectors with different shows that turn on at 7 p.m., rotating images from local and national artists.

Her collections have ranged in topic from “divine feminism” to abstract art shows, to photography, to a current initiative called “neutral nation” about body positivity. She recruits artists on social media who submit their work for consideration, and she gives preference whenever possible to local artists bringing their work back to their hometowns. This also contributes to keeping the Newark economy alive, as she promotes local artists being able to sell their work back to their own communities.

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Art has always had another purpose beyond just access to beautiful images. O’Rourke featured vacant properties before and during the pandemic to attract tenants for struggling landlords. 

“In Newark, anytime you build an apartment building, you have to have the bottom floor available for retail. This is a blessing and curse, as it’s hard to rent,” O'Rourke explains.

Landlords would give her gallery space to make displays for free, and the brilliant collaboration led to at least seven spaces being rented out thanks to O’Rourke bringing foot traffic into the spaces. In 2019, they had 29 live events displaying the work of 40 artists and then pivoted to both outdoor projection galleries as well as virtual galleries on their website.

“One landlord we work with, we’ve rented out several of his spaces, so he’s very grateful for that. He has an apartment building and was forced to put in six retail spaces,” she says.

The impact goes far beyond just space rentals. “[The area] looks alive now, like things are happening. People are in the neighborhoods. This one section there was a local drug dealer that lived upstairs, and our efforts managed to get him out,” O'Rourke explains, saying they even paired with another non-profit to clean up the area, sweeping up needles from the nearby parking lot. 

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O'Rourke says, “I'm hoping somebody will steal this idea and go into more neighborhoods.”

As COVID-19 concerns become a little less terrifying through vaccinations and protocols, the non-profit is looking to start live gallery events again soon with the necessary precautions.

O’Rourke’s drive to succeed and to help her community through the power of art goes back to her upbringing by her father, a commercial artist, as well as her late husband, a musician.

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“I had a lot of art in my blood,” O'Rourke says. Her art experience, along with her former career at a big four accounting firm, gave O'Rourke a “unique set of skills” to accomplish this meaningful work in her city.

The pandemic didn’t phase her initiative, because she’s used to pivoting for illness.

Ten years ago, O’Rourke began a battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She struggled for four years with debilitating symptoms before a life-changing surgery altered the course of her life, allowing her to continue her art.

Her fighting spirit may be the reason that Newark residents will be exposed to beautiful art during the hardest years they've ever experienced.

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Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist and content marketing writer, focusing on health and wellness, parenting, education, and lifestyle. She has been published in Glamour, Today’s Parent, Reader’s Digest, Parents, Women’s Health, and Business Insider. To read more of her work or to connect, check out her website.