The mural is a surprising riot of color, covering a south-facing wall of the Tannery Marketplace in Newburyport. An arresting image of a heron, wings spread across a deeply saturated background, towers in lush contrast to the industrial brick of the surrounding buildings.
Painted by renowned muralist Felipe Ortiz, it’s perhaps the most obvious signifier of the ways that the Newburyport Art Association is stretching to welcome new voices as it celebrates 75 years in operation.
“Our mission statement is huge and wide, and we’re trying to do a lot,” says Dr. Lisa Naas, executive director, who is also a conceptual glass artist, noting that the NAA tweaked that statement in celebration of the anniversary, but remains focused on art education and access to the visual arts for the entire community.
Not only is the project a nod to street art, but it also takes paintings outside the walls of the galleries, engaging people who have never visited the NAA. Naas hopes the murals will encourage people to step inside to take a look at the exhibits.
“Many locals don’t know that we are here for everybody, and anybody can walk in our door,” Naas says. “There’s no admission fee. We’re not an exclusive members club.”
The mural project isn’t the first way the NAA has stepped outside the gallery. For years, the Range Lights Sculpture Garden, just behind the museum alongside the popular Clipper City Rail Trail, has attracted hundreds of people every week. “I love . . . seeing all the families come by on their evening strolls through the sculpture garden,” Naas says. “Public art offers unique experiences that way, especially for little ones to grow up surrounded by art.”
Just as the mural project and the sculpture garden grab the attention of passersby, Naas sees many more opportunities to engage with the community. She joined the NAA in 2021, and her primary task continues to be the difficult job of rebuilding after Covid shuttered gallery shows and fundraising. While membership has rebounded from historic lows in 2021 to more than 500 artists and supporters, classes and visits to the gallery have been slower to grow. “We are here for everybody, from the beginner to the most established,” Naas says, noting that classes are open to members and nonmembers alike.
The pandemic did bring one positive change: a reexamination of the ways that technology can extend reach beyond the building itself. “We are now living in a digital world, and we want to do as many things in a hybrid manner as we can,” Naas says. “You’re going to find every single show online. We open it up when we open the physical gallery up, and we close it when the physical show comes down. So that lets everybody see what’s going on with us, no matter where they are.” Galleries change over at a brisk pace, with some shows staying for only two weeks, meaning there’s always something new to look at, both in person and online.
The careful balance between preserving traditions and growth is on full display this fall. In mid-October, the Members’ Fall Juried Show, which has run annually for decades, will be curated by Markus Sebastiano, contemporary mixed media artist and owner of Blochaus. The exhibit will be offered concurrently with a Featured Artist Show by Donald Jurney, an NAA Master Artist and longtime supporter whose work is rooted in plein air landscapes. Then, when those more traditional shows come down in mid-November, the third installment of NAA’s 75th Anniversary exhibitions, “Journeying Well: Artistic Pathways,” will arrive. Open to both members and nonmembers, it will be more conceptual, addressing the creative process and the varied paths that artists follow.
“It’s a way to embrace our legacy, and also our future,” Naas says. “The exhibition will be multifaceted to reflect the nature of the creative process,” with works highlighting the literal paths of creative exploration, as well as metaphorical and abstract takes on the concepts. To build the show, Naas has been posting quotes by famous creatives dating back as far as 1948, when the NAA was founded, and asking artists to respond to them with works of art.
“It’s a different take on how to put a show together,” Naas says. “It’s drawing inspiration from famous artists and writers and creatives who have worked since the time of our founding to now. It’s my job to take what they give me and make sense of it, so that it works as a show.”
While the show was still coalescing at press time, Naas envisions one gallery devoted to this call-and-response format. For instance, a viewer might find a quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George paired with an artist’s visual response. She hopes that the format will attract new visitors, as well as stimulate supporters to engage with art in new ways, which is really the promise for visitors every time they walk through the gallery’s doors.
“Each artist brings their own perspective, and offers it to the viewer. And then the viewer gets to see a little bit of how they look at the world,” Naas says. “It’s important and enriching for a community to have all those diverse perspectives available. It all comes down to how you look at things.”