For as long as she can remember, Rebecca Jampol has embraced art as a vehicle for social change. “I don’t know where it happened, but from a very early age, I understood the power of collaboration [and] pooling voices and resources—and how actions can become stronger if you work with others,” she says.
During her years in Rutgers University–Newark’s Arts, Culture, and Media graphic design program (where she now teaches), Jampol NCAS’13 became even more passionate about the intersectionality of art and social discourse. In 2010, she launched Solo(s) Project House and five years later, she became co-director of the Project for Empty Space, both Newark-based organizations. “The goal was to allow people to come to a safe place where they could communicate or discuss their feelings, allow space for other people’s perspectives, and try to come to a place where there was some ongoing exchange of how we can be better together,” she says.
Another key component of her approach is to provide equal opportunity to access art. This ethos is best exemplified in Jampol’s recent work as a curator and designer for several public arts programs in Newark, including Gateways to Newark (the longest mural on the East Coast), the Four Corners Public Arts program, the city’s #MuralsForJustice program (a collaboration with Rutgers), and, most recently Audible’s Newark Artist Collaboration. This year, she also chaired the design team for Newark Hope Village, which is converting shipping containers into shelters for residents without addresses. She has also expanded beyond Newark’s boundaries to co-design a large-scale interactive project, #SeeMeBronx, which encouraged visitors to take selfies holding their own handwritten questions about identity, equity, and inclusion.
Here Jampol talks about the complexities of putting her philosophy into action—and why it’s important to share your truth (in any medium you choose), even if it’s not always popular.
What made you realize the power of art in raising awareness and promoting social justice?
I was invited to activate a vacant space at the Gateway Center by then-owner C&K properties. I had this moment where I was sitting right in Gateway 2, where there’s just this massive flow of traffic. And I was like, “Look at how many people are walking through—commuters, students, hockey fans, residents. This is everybody. And I have this ability to bring [to their attention] the artists that are living and working in Newark. But also, I have a little bit of power to talk about things that are important to this community and have them amplify through this space.
We as creatives have the ability to open up different perspectives or just shed light on truth via the vehicle that we’re using, whether it be a painting or a billboard, or a mural or whatever medium—a digital piece of art, a video.
Can you give an example of how you’ve seen art amplify specific messages—and how the public responded to it?
In 2016, there were a number of police brutality cases that were highlighted through the news and social media. My partner at Project for Empty Space, Jasmine Wahi, and I were sitting in our space at [the Gateway Center in Newark], and we were just talking about the storefront and how we could use it to demand attention and action. So, we did something very simple. We just placed an 8-foot-tall “Black Lives Matter” sign on our front window. When we put it up, I didn’t fully understand its impact, because to me it was what we were supposed to do. Immediately, there was an influx of emails about how we were out of line as an organization. Despite the feedback, we committed to leaving it up, and it stayed up for a full year.
It was that moment that we really changed our trajectory as an organization. We are 100 percent dedicated to supporting artists that are working through activism and various mediums of art to promote social change. Over the last six years, our exhibitions and residency programs have been really intentional and address topics important to our communities head on.
At the beginning of 2020, Jasmine and I partnered with several artists and organizers for an exhibition called Abortion Is Normal. And again, we brought those words—abortion is normal—to the storefront of that space. We also did two simultaneous art exhibitions at two galleries in Manhattan, and the artwork sales went directly to Planned Parenthood and to sponsor education around reproductive rights in advance of the upcoming election. A lot of people felt heard. I think that was one of the most profound moments that I have been involved with, where I saw so many people impacted by the messaging and then watched the actual, tangible results of the art sales.
Abortion is normal—this is seen as a radical message. But to me, this is not radical. I’m supposed to be able to do what I need to do with my body because I feel like it’s the right fit for me. We’re supposed to be able to say that Black Lives Matter in order for all lives to matter. We’re supposed to be able to say these things. Why is it activism? This is truth.
You’ve been involved in many public mural installations over the past five years. What kind of impact can these projects have locally?
In 2020, I helped organize two community ground murals [on behalf of Rutgers’ Arts, Culture, and Media department and the city of Newark]. Two murals were created at the same time: one on Martin Luther King Boulevard that said, “Abolish White Supremacy” and the other one on Halsey Street that said, “All Black Lives Matter.” There was an urgency attached to it. We were watching cities across the nation produce these murals, and we wanted to live in solidarity with that and also create messages that were important to the city of Newark.
We had over 300 students, faculty members, organizers, volunteers, and community artists come together to create these two works. I think the most powerful thing about this project was just the level of engagement and pride. Obviously, we didn’t make these messages because things are great. The current and historic levels of trauma that are attached to this messaging are very real. But to come together during a pandemic, when we haven’t seen each other [for months], and to hold each other (from 6 feet apart, of course) and paint together and be outside—I think that was a severely needed thing for the Newark community.
This year, we went back and repainted them just to reinforce these messages. Although they might fade away because they’re painted on a street and cars drive over them, our city is committed to that messaging and to supporting all of our communities. This work was also recently memorialized through the lens of local photographers in an exhibition titled There Is This We: Murals for Justice, produced in partnership with Express Newark, Honors Living-Learning Community, and Four Corners Public Arts.
Do you see the art industry becoming more accessible to everyone? If not, what can we do to help change that?
I think the industry is working on it. For a very long time, it was white male dominated. The commercial art world is still very much working on it, but there are many nonprofits that are dedicated to creating conversations around equity and diversity. They are also creating opportunities that are strategic, such as scholarships for specific communities and visibility for artists that are working in specific topics or from specific backgrounds. So being really intentional in your programming and where support falls, I think, is really, really, really important for all organizations that are trying to create programming that reaches all audiences.
But I [also] want to go back to the board room. [If you are on a nonprofit,] who is your board? What are the values that they reflect? What are the organizations that they are running? When you look at that board, do you see board members from a variety of different backgrounds, or do you just see the same group that’s been there for the last 20 years? The problem is, if you only have a singular view in that board room—or from your staff or from curators—then there’s no way that you can properly represent a massive nation and world full of different backgrounds and identities and complicated, intersectional, beautiful perspectives.
You also do a lot of work to make art more accessible for audiences as well as artists. Can you speak more about that?
I think access is not something that just happens. You have to work for that. You have to provide these opportunities. Galleries, for so long, were four white walls that only the elite were invited into. To change that narrative about galleries and the function of them and who they serve, you have to scream it from the top of your lungs.
At Project for Empty Space, our mission includes a line about “creating safe and equitable spaces for audiences and artists alike.” We’re not just serving artists and their needs, which are very important, but also thinking about audiences. That widens our creative community, too, because a young girl that didn’t know that she was allowed to be a painter is now a painter. A kid that showed up for a community painting day is now making murals, and that’s his career. That’s how things change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.