A Look Back at Index Art Center – An Interview with Lowell Craig

One of the main anchors in the Newark art scene will be no more: Index Art Center is shutting down its longtime physical home at 237 Washington Street. In its closure, it’s joining other dearly departed art spaces in the city: Aljira, Solo(s) Project House and 31 Central Avenue, among many others. Gentrification, the bane of many a vibrant DIY art scene, is the cause behind Index losing its home since the gallery sits on prime downtown real estate. (RBH Group, a local developer, plans to remake the area into Four Corners Millennium Project, a mixed-use residential, retail, hotel and office development that has been on the drawing board for years.)

Since its founding, Index, a non-profit, successfully activated the 237 location with numerous art shows, art studios, music concerts, parties, and meaningful collaborations with other local organizations. Index nurtured an army of artists and was also an indispensable stop for Newark’s Open Doors, the city’s annual art festival. 

Its hopefully temporary closure is a signifier of how the art scene in the city is always undergoing continuous change. Just recently, the city opened the doors of the new Gant-Gilbert Arts Collective in the South Ward (named after two Newark art luminaries, Jerry Gant and Rodney Gilbert). The city has Gallery Aferro, which will be holding its annual art auction and party on April 23rd. Project for Empty Space is thriving with groundbreaking shows. And that’s just a small sample of the various happenings in the Newark art scene.

Though the gallery will be leaving its physical location, Lowell Craig, the founder and popular director of Index, plans to still be part of the city’s rich artistic landscape. Index is in the midst of finding a new space and may land one soon, according to Lowell.

Recently, we talked with him about the history behind Index, its legacy and gentrification. 

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Newarker: How long has Index been around and how did it get started?

Lowell: Originally, it was a few of us, a bunch of friends and I, that started Redsaw Gallery on Broad Street in Newark in 2005. Then we split up in about 2009 and then we started Index.

Index 2009 – we started at 585 Broad Street and that was a really cool building full of artists. One half of the building was where I was and where the gallery was located, and then the other half was made up of artist studios and where the Newark Print Shop got started. 

The Newarker: And when did it move to 237 Washington? 

Lowell: That was 2013 because we had a fire over at Broad Street. And yeah, the move was fast. That same year, all these people were reaching out and helping us. And that’s why we found 237 pretty fast. 

The Newarker: How many shows do you think the gallery has held over its life?

Lowell: I am trying to do the math. We would basically do monthly shows. We had the gallery and then we had a side gallery at Broad Street. And that was the same over at 237 – we had a main gallery and we had a little side gallery. And in 2016 or 2017, we got the first floor of our building. So that’s three galleries. So doing the math, I think we did about 250 shows since 2009. 

The Newarker: Wow, that’s amazing! And of course, you have these special programs like your independent film festival, Filmideo.

Lowell: Yeah, that was our film festival that we actually started with Redsaw and then continued over with Index. And we did that for 12 years, I think. And then I stopped doing it before the pandemic. It was just a lot of work. I would get submissions from all over the world. At least a thousand submissions that I had to go through pretty much by myself.

The Newarker: Yeah, of course. But you had other special programs: You were part of Open Doors, and I remember you would hold concerts, rock concerts, right? 

Lowell: Yeah, we would do all kinds of stuff. We used to do one called Venus Fest. 

The Newarker: And of course, you had the residency program with all the different studios. How many floors did you take up of Washington Street anyway? 

Lowell: We had the whole building there, basically basement to attic. When we first moved there, we only had the second and third. There was a furniture store in the first, and they moved out around the end of 2016, and then we took it over and we turned it into a sort of flex space. We would do a lot of music shows and they were combined with art shows. So that was a lot of fun. 

Index Art Center’s Annual BBQ fundraiser at 27 Mix (2016) Photo by Anna Ryabtsov.

The Newarker: So, what gave you the idea to start Redsaw and Index and get involved in art? 

Lowell: We all went to art school. I got my BFA at Kean University. I didn’t get a master’s degree, but my other friends – they went for their master’s at Montclair University. And basically, we were inspired by other galleries, specifically Aljira and Aferro. We were inspired by DIY galleries in Newark and Jersey City. They inspired me. This was in 2001 to 2004 – there were a lot of DIY galleries at the time. We had a space and opportunity to start a gallery so we did it.

The Newarker: What’s next for Index Art Center?

Lowell: Index as an organization – well, hopefully we will keep the organization going for a little while, but we’re losing our building and that’s a big deal. We may find a new spot to have an office, storage and room for some art studios. 

The Newarker: What is happening to your current space?

Lowell: It’s getting turned into an apartment building, basically. Yeah. 

The Newarker: So that’s definitely happening? Because that was in the planning stages for years. 

Lowell: Yes, it’s definitely happening as far as I know. Or else we wouldn’t be losing the building. 

The Newarker: As a longtime observer of Newark, what do you think of the gentrification in the city?

Lowell: It’s actually gaining strength. I thought the pandemic would slow things down, but it seems like gentrification is gaining more strength with the pandemic. There is a lot of development going on. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down whatsoever. 

The Newarker: And hopefully there will be room for artists when this is all over?

Lowell: I don’t know. I have no clue. But we are the ones who have to keep it up and not give up. 

In the 20 years I’ve been here, artists have been able to find a studio or an art space for a thousand and under. And will that be the case? Will that continue to be the case? I know a lot of the studios in town right now are pretty expensive. 

The Newarker: Can you reflect on the impact of Index on the art scene in Newark? We feel you all were a big presence in the city. 

Lowell: We’ve been around for almost 20 years. We had monthly art shows. We gave as many artists opportunities to show their work, and we did our best to keep people inspired in a creative minded space. 

The Newarker: We think people are heartbroken. Is there a moment in the past that encapsulates the Index vibe or ethos? I’m sure you have great moments.

Lowell: It’s hard to answer that one because there’s no specific moment. It’s all the moments, you know, sort of combined and formed who we are.

The Newarker: What do you hope was Index’s impact?

Lowell: We met a lot of great friends through Index and gave opportunities to artists. I hope that we inspired people and helped them create and make art, and hopefully we created artists out of this project. 

April 1st will mark Index Art Center’s last event at 237 Washington Street followed by the “Last Dance Afterparty” hosted by Newark First Fridays and the Brick City Comedy Revue.

Featured photo by Anna Ryabtsov