The art scene in this small South Jersey town is popping off

After years of investment, Millville’s renovated theater, artist spaces, galleries and events make it a bona fide arts destination.

A new exhibit, South Jersey Goes Pop!, opened in the Arts and Innovation Center at Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) this week. The exhibit—with an opening artist’s reception on March 11—features pop art from South Jersey artists Danielle Cartier (mixed media), David Bogus (ceramics) and Jim Greenwell (sculpture). 

While the name of the exhibit alludes to the style of art featured, it also doubles as an apt description of the arts scene in Millville, a town of 28,000 people way down in Cumberland County, halfway between Philly and Ocean City. With a restored 100-year-old performing arts theater (the Levoy), several artist galleries and studio spaces, the RCSJ art center, which offers classes for credit and non-credit, the centerpiece Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts, and organized Third Friday art walks, which gets folks into galleries, restaurants and events, Millville is a bona fide arts destination deep down in South Jersey.

Cartier visited Millville for the first time a year or two ago and was surprised by the activity of the art scene.

Photo Credit: Danielle Cartier

“I couldn’t get over how many people went there,” says Cartier, who’s renovating a gallery space in downtown Millville in order to transform it into her own gallery, studio and workshop space. “It was just kind of like a hidden gem. All the galleries and creative spaces are open and people can kind of hop from one exhibition to the next and see a wide range of artists and artwork and there’s great places to eat there, too.” 

Cartier was eager to participate in the South Jersey Goes Pop! exhibit as it gave her an opportunity to showcase some of her work to the local crowd ahead of her opening, hopefully in late April. Cartier was a last-minute addition to the show; in fact, all the participants were. 

“It was kind of a happy accident. Somebody canceled,” says Jacqueline Sandro-Greenwell, director of fine arts at RCSJ and curator of the exhibit. But as is so often the case, mishaps and curveballs in art, and in life, can often lead to pleasant surprises.

“It’s very pop art and it’s really bright. I think it’s a lovely, fun show. It’s really great timing because we’re coming out of the COVID stuff and no masks and springtime and it’s colorful,” says Sandro-Greenwell. “I love the show. Every time I go in, I smile. I hope it draws people in for the opening, and we’ll have a nice crowd.” 

It’s likely to. Because although the exhibit may be the happy result of plans changed, the groundwork for building the arts scene in Millville has been laid for decades. The town has made improving its arts district central to its economic development plans. Millions were spent restoring the Levoy to its vaudevillian days and expanding the Arts and Innovation Center to provide 21,000 square feet of educational, retail and maker spaces. Too, the town created an agency to develop the downtown Glasstown Arts District (named after Millville’s historic glass manufacturing industry) and act as an advocate and marketing arm for Millville, with the focus of using arts to drive growth.

It all seems to be working.

“People come out because there’s always new art on the walls or on pedestals,” says Marianne Lods, executive director of Glasstown Arts District. “The public, they realize art is good for business. … We have used the arts as a catalyst for our growth. Our brand is strong. You can never let down on the push pedal, you have to work it all the time.” 

Courtesy Levoy Theatre

The efforts not only attract residents in the region to explore the arts, maybe stop off on a drive from Philly to the beach or get some holiday shopping done, but they also help South Jersey artists by providing a place to show their work, grow their audience or, in Cartier’s case, open a gallery and studio. Cartier is intent on retaining the essence of the previous gallery in that building, La Bottega of Art,, and though there’s work to be done—painting walls, making it her own, etc.—its previous life of the space provides a compass for its new one.

“The gallery space will remain a public gallery space,” Cartier says. “It’s also going to be my personal art studio. Once that’s kind of established, I want to hold classes in there, also, [with] a visual arts classroom. So many people have been asking me about classes in the space, and I want to have classes in there, I just feel like I’ve got to get things situated in there before I can put that under my belt as well.”

Plenty of South Jersey artists can, and have, benefitted from the showcase opportunities Millville offers. Lods says Millville provides opportunities for artists in a variety of media to show their work, and has unique benefits that come with being in a smaller locale.

“There are always open shows across mediums, maybe a photography show in one of the rooms [of a gallery], or all abstract work or many other examples,” Lods says. “Artists from all over, doesn’t matter where. They can submit a couple images and if they’re accepted, they have an opportunity to show and sell work. Galleries take commissions, but it’s much lower than in the city. In the city, galleries take 50% or 60% even. Here, the standard commission is 40%. If you’re a member [of Riverfront Center for the Arts], it’s 30%, and there are always buyers.”

Photo Credit: Danielle Cartier

Sandro-Greenwell says she looks local when finding artists to show work in the Arts and Innovation Center, even if it’s partly of necessity.

“Unfortunately we’re not like a New York gallery where we can afford shipping,” Sandro-Greenwell says. “If i see an artist’s work that I love, I ask them if they would like to have a show or participate in a show. We have a beautiful space, it’s top-notch.”

That “obstacle,” however, ensures that South Jersey artists have a supreme gallery in which to show their work. If there’s a through line between many of the artists that show in Millville, it’s nature. Makes sense: located on the Maurice River (where you can, and should, get a two-hour river boat tour) and home to bald eagle nesting sites, with plenty of open space around, Millville is made for naturalists and artists who are inspired by it.

“A lot of the artists in this area are very much inspired by nature, which doesn’t surprise me,” says Sandro-Greenwell. “The ocean, the beach. How they approach that can be totally different, everyone comes to that subject matter differently. Some are more abstract, some are more representational. And, I would say with the glass and pottery, I think we have a very strong fine craft group of artists.”

Photo Credit: Danielle Cartier

Adds Lods, “Landscape work is predominant because we are proud of our environment here. Our little downtown is right on the Maurice River, which feeds into the Delaware Bay, but it’s a federally designated wild and scenic river. … People who’ve never seen it, say, ‘Who knew?’”

Of course, work remains to be done, from the micro, like Cartier refitting her studio, to the macro, like making Millville an even bigger draw for the art crowd. As in other municipalities, the pandemic exacerbated issues like home foreclosure, homelessness and empty storefronts—“I’m not going to make it sound like it’s the Garden of Eden here,” as Lods puts it. But time and again, when communities invest in art—as in Asbury Park, Montclair, Camden and others—or make it a centerpiece of their identity—as in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, or Marfa, Texas—good things happen. 

“We think all the good things that are happening are going to happen more as we continue rebuild again,” Lods says. “It’s a never-ending goal of building more and getting more people interested in coming here. They don’t need to live here, they can go home. We don’t mind that at all.”

South Jersey Goes Pop! is on view at the Arts and Innovation Center at RCSJ from now until April 11. Go here for more information. For more on the Glasstown Arts District and the entertainment options in Millville, go here.