Trenton pulls together as Art All Night returns with tighter security

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Lauren Otis (left), executive director of Artworks, and Joseph Kuzemka, director of Art All Night in Trenton, are preparing for the arts festival. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lauren Otis (left), executive director of Artworks, and Joseph Kuzemka, director of Art All Night in Trenton, are preparing for the arts festival. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Art All Night returns this weekend, but after 12 years of staying true to its name, the popular arts festival in Trenton, New Jersey will no longer be open for 24 hours.

The event will close to the public for six hours, from 1 to 7 a.m. on Sunday. Only volunteers and participating artists will be allowed inside during that overnight window as part of new security measures in response to last year’s mass shooting that killed one person and injured 22 others.

“In recent weeks, we’ve had to change a couple things. We are going to close in the wee hours,” said Lauren Otis, executive director of Artworks, which puts on Art All Night. “Hopefully in future years we will go, like we did, the full 24 hours.”

Scaled back hours, beefed up security

Just before 3 a.m. on June 17, 2018, a dispute among area gangs turned the festival into a crime scene, marring an event that had become a point of pride for artists and residents in the long-struggling state capitol.

For 12 years, the event stayed true to its title, staying open for 24 hours from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon in the historic Roebling Wire Works building, where the walls were covered about 1,500 pieces of original art submitted from the public.

“Anyone can submit one piece of art for free,” said Otis. “Refrigerator art, student art, and artists with national renown. It’s a wonderfully democratic event in that way.”

With food trucks outside and three stages hosting more than 60 bands, it has always been a high point of summer in Trenton, drawing about 25,000 people from around the Philadelphia region.

The Art All Night festival in Trenton. (Evelyn Tu for WHYY)

In the wake of the shooting, Otis and the event’s director Joseph Kuzemka did some soul searching to figure out if there was a future for Art All Night.

“Joe and I wanted the event back, in two ways,” said Otis. “We wanted it to still be Art All Night, but we wanted it back in a way that is secure.”

At least for this year, they couldn’t have both.

Otis and Kuzemka scaled back the hours and beefed up security. There will be a fenced perimeter around the event, Trenton police will search bags and scan attendees with metal-detector wands.

One of the three music stages, normally at the nearby in Mill Yard Park, has been eliminated. There will still be dozens of bands — 48 are scheduled — but fewer than previous years.

Security will be similar to concerts or sports events of similar size, Kuzemka says.

“What we focused on very heavily, outside of the security measures that we needed to take this year, is ensuring that the Art All Night experience remains the same,” he said. “Once you get inside the secured perimeters, everything you see and everything you know about Art All Night is going to appear the same way. It will just be a little slower process to get in this year.”

‘I don’t think we can give in to fear’

Art All Night has become an important event for Trenton because it brought together people from all over the city and attracted many people from outside the city, people who might have little other reason to come into the state capital.

Fran Carroll from neighboring Hamilton was at last year’s Art All Night, tabling for the gun-control group Moms Demand Action of Mercer County. Behind the group’s table read a sign, “Imagine a world free of gun violence.”

“I signed up for an overnight shift, being a night owl,” she said.

Carroll’s shift ended at 2:30 a.m., so she and another Moms Demand Action member, an older woman walking with a cane, took a turn through the building together to look at the artwork.

“I saw a stampede of people coming at me and didn’t know why,” Carroll recalled. “Then, I heard the gunshots. Then, it was just a matter of running.”

Carroll and her friend moved with the crowd as best they could, but their slow pace left them behind. She said they crouched behind some plywood panels until police officers came and told them it was clear.

That memory of the shooting has not deterred Carroll from attending Art All Night this year.

“It’s a great city. Trenton has a lot of offer,” she said. “I didn’t want people to stay away from this. It’s a great community event. I don’t think we can give in to fear like that.”

The organizers are counting on that kind of grit to keep the Art All Night moving forward.

“What was so wonderful, after what was so horrible, was the incredible outpouring of support from high and low,” said Otis. “‘Don’t let this stop you. We’ll see you next year.’ That was from the community. Also from the mayor of the city, the governor — people spoke about how something as wonderful as this couldn’t stop.”

Trenton artist Leon Rainbow stands in front of the mural he created on Broad Street near Mercer County Community College. He is an enthusiastic participant in Art All Night, the annual arts festival Roebling Wire Works. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One of Art All Night’s longtime participants is Leon Rainbow, a Trenton graffiti artist and muralist who has been creating interactive art events at the festival since it started. He produces his own summer hip-hop event with art and music, Jersey Fresh Jam, but says Art All Night is the city’s signature event.

“We had such a positive event for 12 years. Then there’s a tragedy with a shooting and it’s instantly all over the world,” he said. “A lot of those people might only know it from the negative part.”

Trenton has its share of problems. Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, there were two separate mass shootings, resulting in 16 people shot. One of them died.

Sitting on a low wall in front of his commissioned streetscape mural on Broad Street, Rainbow wishes that as much attention being paid to Art All Night could be paid to the rest of the city.

“In reality, we have shootings in this city all the time, but it doesn’t make the news until it gets into an event that suburban people come to,” he said. “As long as it’s in these neighborhoods, nobody cares. That’s unfortunate to me.”

Rainbow normally works on art projects throughout Art All Night. He has done a tag-team mural painting, set up a live projection of an Instagram feed, and experimented with video mapping. This year he plans to step back a bit, only agreeing to paint skateboard decks and signing up for a late-night volunteer slot.

He’d like to spend more time enjoying the festival than working it.

“You know, they have all these great bands. I never see them because I’m in a room somewhere sharing my art with people, which is awesome,” said Rainbow. “But the way I see them is the next day, I look at the videos.”

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