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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

In Trenton, Artworks Thrives

For years the city of Trenton has been threatened with a renaissance. Yet Artworks, the visual arts school of Princeton and Trenton, has actually experienced one.

During the organization's 10 years in its Trenton building, at 19 Everett Alley, off Stockton Street, Artworks has known travails to rival Job's: deep indebtedness; sweltering summer heat; identity crises ("Are we Princeton or Trenton-based?"); and on-again, off-again staffing problems.

Today, despite all these permutations and peregrinations, Artworks is solidly in the black, air-conditioned, based only in Trenton (and open to art students and gallery-goers for miles, and states, around), and possessed of numerous students, solid studio courses, and innovative programs. As executive director Tricia Fagan puts it, "We're unique." Together with Robin Middleman, her former co-director, a committed board of trustees, and a notable faculty, Fagan was there at the re-creation.

Amid conspicuous progress, Artworks celebrates 10 years in its Trenton building with "Night of the Water Lilies," a gala benefit and auction on Saturday, November 7, beginning at 6 p.m. Inspired by Monet's water lilies, faculty, students, and supporters are transforming their utilitarian home into a shimmering Impressionist setting for dinner, desserts, dancing, and a major auction.

To sit at Artworks and talk with director Fagan is to catch the spirit. If you weren't already a member, you would want to join. If you weren't a believer in art, you would convert. A Trenton resident with contacts left and right; an artist herself who first encountered Artworks as a student; a drop-in and hands-on manager of the building called the "Art Center of Trenton," Fagan has been, unquestionably, "the right person at the right time in the right place" -- even though her resignation (after a two-year tenure) is effective the end of this month.

Fagan is pleased with systems changes made during her tenure: registration and notification procedures are now in place, as is a payroll company, freeing administrative staff to concentrate on other things. Although such improvements are invisible to students and members, the number of snafus has shrunk, and those who interact with Artworks simply sense a smoother-running machine. Early on, Fagan and Middleman built up the bank of faculty resumes to draw on as new art teachers were needed. An organization brochure is in the pipeline, and a recent competition yielded a new Artworks logo, soon to enter the picture.

As executive director, Fagan takes her leadership and supervisory roles seriously -- but with a light touch. She drops in on classes, makes suggestions, and encourages staff and volunteers to "own" their mistakes as freely as she does hers. The atmosphere is one of productive camaraderie.

Founded 34 years ago in Princeton as the Princeton Art Association, the organization adopted the trade name "ARTWORKS" on its move to the Trenton location, a one-time Sears warehouse converted into high-ceilinged gallery, classroom, and studio space. With the 1996 closing of Artworks' Princeton classroom facility, Trenton become the sole site. The city provides a hub, Fagan asserts, that is both central and accessible. This semester's classes have attracted over 150 students from 27 municipalities in six New Jersey counties and 10 Pennsylvania towns -- plus one student from New York City.

The Trenton locale has also fostered community outreach, including an "Access to Art" after-school program for disadvantaged elementary school students, and "Learning Through Art," the prestigious Guggenheim Museum Children's Education Program, which aims to enhance the teaching of core subjects, such as reading and math, through the use of art. Last year, student projects from the latter program were displayed in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. And Artworks' Salon Series, now in its second year, offers access to private art collections and artists' studios.

Pam Mount, chair of Artworks' board of trustees and someone often credited for much of the organization's turn-around, says "the school is the core thing." She sees it as a regional art school, possibly the only private, non-profit institution of its kind -- and a very fine one. As for Artworks' renaissance, Mount believes the commitment to excellence of art education, through small classes and an intimate environment, has paid off in a steadily-growing enrollment.

Mount is proud of the "Learning Through Art" expansion this year, from two to three grades at Trenton's Parker School, and, for the first time, two grades in the Trenton Charter School. "It can be documented that kids learn better through art," she says, citing a follow-up study by Educational Testing Service as only the latest proof.

Working to replace Fagan, a search committee is looking for a full-time director with school management experience. Right now, a part-time office manager completes the administrative team, which Mount says could grow, depending on the school's continued success. Besides volunteer docents, a gallery director who could set up off-site exhibits and gallery talks are among the plans.

Artist Micheal Madigan, whose 10-year affiliation with Artworks parallels its Trenton era, has watched it all happen -- while making significant contributions on many fronts: faculty member, trustee, building mural coordinator, outreach advocate. "This is an exciting time," says Madigan. "Artworks is a much stronger organization now, because of the excellent teaching staff, and all we can offer the community." Historically a faculty booster, Madigan emphasizes the number of diverse artists accessible at Artworks, doubting that any other art program in the area could be so well endowed.

Gail Bracegirdle, another faculty veteran who also chairs the exhibition committee and serves on Artworks' board, unhesitatingly explains the organization's present serendipitous state: "It's like a family of creative people, artists who want to bond with other artists." She believes the faculty's strength and cohesiveness has helped Artworks survive tough times.

"It's hard to find this level of sophistication and seriousness without matriculating somewhere," says Deborah Hockstein, who started as an Artworks student in 1982 and now teaches there. "People who don't want or need to do that get unusually high-caliber classes here, where artists on the faculty are very much teachers, too." Also a board member, Hockstein rents studio space at Artworks, reinforcing her observation that, "There's something quite wonderful about this place and this building."

At Artworks' "Night of the Water Lilies" benefit gala, celebrants will literally walk and dance on a flowering floor. Painted by volunteers, the gallery floor will speak Monet, and other elements of the gala will continue with the Impressionist theme: At the entrance: Manet's "Balcony," and a hallway mural will reprise various Impressionist works. For the patrons' and sponsors' dinner preceding the silent auction, area florists will donate Impressionist-inspired centerpieces, and the dessert table, open to all, will evoke Monet's picnic scenes.

The event will honor two prime movers in Artworks' early success: Mary Yess, executive director from 1982 to '92, and Susan Hockaday, chair of the board of trustees from 1985 to '91. Both are artists, and both credited as estimable motivators and organizers.

Nearly 70 artists have contributed works for the evening's auction. Among the works to be sold (with half of the proceeds going to Artworks) is a prototype for the waterlily floor, produced by faculty member Pat Kay, who teaches drawing with colored pencils. Other highlights include "The Silent Monk," a bronze sculpture of the Dalai Lama created and donated by Gyuri Hollosy; a print by Judith K. Brodsky; Susan Kubota's fiber collage, "Mummy Quilt Fragment"; two stained glass pieces by Daniela Bittman; and Mel Leipzig's study for his painting of Trenton watercolor painter Tom Malloy in his studio.

-- Pat Summers

Night of the Water Lilies, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Stockton Street, Trenton, 609-394-9436. Gala benefit with patrons & sponsors art preview and dinner, $150 & $250 per couple. Auction, dessert, and dancing is $25. Saturday, November 7, 6 p.m.

Auction preview viewing hours are Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m.

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