Long-time Trenton resident Lauren Otis is the executive director of Artworks, a downtown arts center with the mission of connecting community, culture, and creativity through the arts. Located in a former Sears warehouse nestled between giant government buildings and the quaintly historic Mill Hill neighborhood of Trenton, Artworks’ workshops, exhibitions, and other events draw a wide cross-section of people from the city and beyond. Plus, it produces two big annual events: Art All Night, a two day “arts extravaganza” held in the Roebling Wire Works building; and Art All Day, a city-wide open studio tour. Art All Day is still tentatively scheduled to take place “in real life” this fall, but Art All Night 2020 will take place virtually the weekend of August 15-16. More about that later.
I spoke by phone with Otis on May 11, 2020. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, he spoke about how Artworks responded quickly to the fast-changing circumstances brought about by the pandemic, the creative opportunities presented by moving Art All Night online, and how his own daily routine has changed, giving him an even greater appreciation for his city.
Jersey Arts: You’ve been the executive director of Artworks since 2016, and have been involved with Trenton’s cultural scene for far longer. Tell me about your history with the city - what drew you to it?
Lauren Otis: I’ve lived in Trenton for over 30 years. I consider myself a city person: I grew up in New York City, I went to college in Philadelphia, I’ve pretty much always lived in cities. The short story is that over 30 years ago, my companion at the time got a job in Central Jersey and I agreed that we would move out to the area but my one stipulation was, “Let’s find an urban area and move there.” She agreed and we moved to Trenton. I’ve been here ever since, and raised my children here.
It’s always difficult for me to hear people say things that aren’t very positive about Trenton because there are so many people who care so much about the city, and who are working very hard to improve the city. I think Trenton is actually doing incredibly well, and I love that new people move here all the time and see what I saw 30 years ago. It has a wonderful history—historic buildings, Revolutionary history—it has a wonderful creative scene, it’s the seat of state and county government - there’s a lot going on in the city. Those of us who like urban life see that in Trenton.
JA: According to the Artworks website, there’s quite a bit going on even though your physical location is closed to the public. What was it like to transition your events and classes from in-person to online so quickly?
LO: There’s nothing like taking a class in person with a practicing artist, or looking at art in person; I don’t think you can substitute for that experience. But I do think Artworks is lucky because we can do a pretty impressive facsimile through virtual beaming things into people’s living rooms and homes. And so that’s what we’ve switched to, and my staff, exhibits director Addison Vincent and education director Jesse Vincent (no relation), have done a wonderful job of keeping people engaged at a time when people need to be engaged in something other than just the litany of not exactly positive news that we’re having to deal with. Creativity is a wonderful place to go to when other things in the world are not that great.
For instance, we’ve moved our classes online. We did a watercolor class—and if you don’t have an actual watercolor set at home, well, you learned how you can use household spices and other things to make colors that you can watercolor with! And another class was taught by a Trenton blacksmith. He gave blacksmithing lessons, which sounds crazy, but with clay or even simple household materials you can make things that are actually quite similar to what he does with a forge. The classes have been very successful, they’re a way for people to see another face and to have a project for themselves, and certainly for their children. So that’s been nice.
Artworks had a youth art and art educators exhibition, which is still hanging in our galleries. We took images and video of that so people were able to tour it virtually even though Artworks was closed. Now, we’ve embarked upon our second, all-virtual exhibit, “Quarantine: Art in Isolation,” featuring what people have been making and creating in quarantine. As a visual arts organization, what we do is translatable into the virtual realm. I feel lucky that way and I feel that what we do is important. So we’re happy to be moving ahead.
JA: How has your mission of connecting with communities through the arts been challenged, or strengthened by this pandemic?
LO: It’s hard to say that anything is strengthened by what we’re going through! But our mission goes on and not very much altered. We really are connecting people in the community through art. If you’re watching one of our classes live, you can see that there are other people watching, and you can read their comments or questions, or even thanks to the teacher. It’s been nice to be able to have that.
Another part of our mission is connecting people from different communities in our city and we’ve had to figure out how to do that. For instance, we do have Spanish-speaking teachers or bilingual teachers. We have someone online so that questions can be asked in either Spanish or English. So we’re trying that. It validates our mission of connecting our communities and we need connection now in any way we can achieve it, more than at any other time.
JA: How is the rest of this year looking for Artworks?
LO: We are now, for better or for worse, having to contemplate the rest of the year being virtual. The exhibits we can do virtually, the classes we can do. However, our big events have been a challenge. We did postpone Art All Night, which was the third weekend in June, to the third weekend in August, and now we’ll be turning it into a virtual event. We're brainstorming on having a super-fun, super-creative, participatory, democratic Art All Night online. I’m actually excited to see what we can do! We can now have artists at Art All Night [each of whom can exhibit one piece of art] from across the country, from across the ocean if we want. So that’s going to be a challenge but it’s exciting. So stay tuned for what kind of animal Art All Night will be this year!
JA: Obviously you’ve been busy behind the scenes making these quick changes so that Artworks can continue its mission. Personally, what have you been doing to recharge during this period?
LO: It’s really still fresh to remember back in March, when things were changing on almost a daily basis. Artworks went from limiting the number of people who would be able to come into our main gallery space to, within days, being closed. And then, what do we do then? A large part of my time has been crisis management in some regard, and that includes financial crisis management. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to make things move forward financially, and that’s the source of a huge amount of stress for everybody.
We have to turn to something for stress relief. For me, it’s been reading, writing, and going for walks. I’m privileged to live in the Island neighborhood of the city where we can take walks along the river with our masks on. I don’t think I’ve experienced the spring quite as intensely as I have this spring. I’ve been outdoors walking almost every day, whereas normally I’m in my office at Artworks working! I’ve been enjoying the connection to nature. Trenton is a city of parks and boulevards and the like, so just to be able to get out and see the trees bloom and then leaf out has been nice.
Find out what’s happening at Artworks, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Artworks ‘classes featuring bookmaking, poetry writing, drawing, dye-making, and more are all available to watch after-the-fact on YouTube.