New Brunswick's coLAB Arts nonprofit expands mission

Bob Makin , @ReporterBMakin4:14 p.m. ET Jan. 24, 2015

New Brunswick's coLAB Arts is evolving how art meets community by expanding opportunities to present emerging artists and offering the city arts education, especially its youth.

NEW BRUNSWICK – For seven years, coLAB Arts has served, taught and presented emerging artists from the city, mainly along the avenues of theater, music, and dance. After taking a few months off last year, the collaborative nonprofit organization has regrouped with a new board and expanded into literature, film and more visual arts and community programs.

Earlier this month, coLIT and coFILM gatherings were well received by amateur and professional writers and filmmakers, as well as appreciators of both media. The zeal is expected to continue on Thursday at World of Beer with the debut of The Vom, a monthly story slam where amateur and professional storytellers can share personal tales related to the evening's theme. This time out it's the role of social media in discussions of race, equality, and justice.

"coLAB is on paper a much smaller organization than many of the other mature arts organizations in New Brunswick," said John P. Keller, coLAB's city-raised, Rutgers-schooled education director. "However, we believe our carefully crafted mission of evolving how art meets community meets a need and adds to the overall value of all of the arts work in New Brunswick. As we grow, that will continue.

“We believe our carefully crafted mission of evolving how art meets community meets a need and adds to the overall value of all of the arts work in New Brunswick. As we grow, that will continue.”

Up until recently, coLAB has played a low-key, behind-the-scenes role within the city. But developments likely are to expand that, as well as its $80,000 annual operating budget.

The arts nonprofit will be administering and curating a city-wide public art project called Rail-Arts-River that intends to bring the Raritan River back into the city's community and culture. In addition to the city, a supporting coalition includes New Brunswick Development Corp. (DEVCO), New Brunswick Cultural Center, City Market, Rutgers Cooperative Extension's Landscape Architecture program, Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, New Brunswick Environmental Commission and Middlesex County Department of Planning. The project is looking at a $1.9 million budget and hoping to garner support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, stakeholders said.

"The team's vision of a dynamic corridor mixes artistic surprise with functional impacts and heralds a socially and environmentally resilient future," said Heather Fenyk, director of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and New Brunswick Environmental Commission.

Rail-Arts-River follows an ongoing public art partnership with the New Brunswick Parking Authority that so far has produced a mural at the Plum Street parking garage and a sculpture at Wellness Plaza made from material pulled from the Raritan River.

Also coming up will be a new addition to the annual Hub City Music Festival in April, during which coLAB will produce 15-minute musicals as collaborations between young bands from the city's basement music scene, students and alumni from Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts, and New York stage professionals.

"DYI punk bands with trained theater professionals will be fun," said founding coLAB Producing Director Daniel Swern.

Despite operating for seven years and also co-producing the Hub City Summer Sounds concert series, participating in the New Brunswick Theater Festival and creating a theater residency at New Brunswick High School and dance residency at Lustig Dance Theatre, coLAB met with Mayor James Cahill for the first time only three weeks ago.

The city administration is helping the band of artists and teachers find a home of their own, the details of which will be announced soon.

"New Brunswick has cultivated a vibrant arts scene comprised of many diverse and innovative organizations like coLAB," Cahill said. "These types of groups are important to the arts and culture of our city because they are innovative and create real ties to the community. coLAB's programs can be seen all around New Brunswick, in our high school, in public art displays and community workshops, all of which strengthen the fabric of our thriving arts community. New Brunswick is fortunate to be home to coLAB."

Tracey O'Reggio, interim executive director of New Brunswick Cultural Center, added, "I believe coLAB should be viewed as a main resource to the emerging artist, high school student, college student or alumni," added. They are the answer to the (questions)" 'I am an artist … so how do I get started?' 'I just graduated with a degree in the arts … now what?' 'How do I connect with other artists?' They have a vast network of artists … as diverse in their demographics as their genres."

O'Reggio said the Cultural Center is very excited to work with some coLAB students in New Brunswick, Highland Park, East Brunswick and Edison on an initiative in partnership with George Street Playhouse and other city-based arts organizations.

The upcoming project will introduce students to the city's many arts venues and performance arts and community organizations.

"We have been mentored and aided by those organizations and we believe there is no such thing as competition in arts," Keller said. "More opportunities just create more desire, creating more need, creating more resources."

The redevelopment of the historic First Reformed Church also will include space for coLAB to develop works by new playwrights and curate an art gallery. Keller is on the board of Town Clock Community Development Corp., the $3.4 million project's main stakeholder.

In turn, the Rev. Susan Kramer-Millers, Town Clock's founder and former co-pastor of its 200-year-old church, serves on coLAB's board.

"The work they are doing within the community is inspiring and valuable in making New Brunswick a cultural center," Kramer-Mills said. (See a related article by Kramer-Mills about her organization's relationship with coLAB at

The coLAB project launched in 2007 after several founders graduated from Rutgers University and the LAB theater program that they had started there. A freelance theater producer-director who has worked in New York, Las Vegas and California, Swern remains as the only founding member still involved (although Keller hosted the barbecue that launched coLAB and came on board as education director three years later).

Rather than move to Los Angeles or New York like many of his colleagues, the Bergen County-raised Swern said he has stayed in Hub City in the hopes of making a difference.

"I think we've been able to do that here to a certain extent," he said.

Keller added, "I want to see the city of New Brunswick a more livable and workable place for artists. I was born and raised here. My family has been here since the 1840s, so I have heard all the stories about the city's history and renaissance. I never imagined myself coming back here to go to grad school or using it as a residential hub for my own personal career (as an actor). However, New Brunswick grew on me throughout my 20s. I saw it as a more livable, and quite frankly hospitable, place to live compared to the hardships of the New York City artist lifestyle. I have been able to do more art because my quality of life is not burdened by the challenges of New York City, while at the same time, I get to reap the benefits of being so close to New York City. It was just so practical. None of my work at coLAB would have been possible if that practical element weren't possible."

About the formation of coLAB, Swern said, "We all felt we were restricted in our abilities to work together as artists at Mason Gross. We wanted create an opportunity where different artists in different mediums could work together. The last couple of years have really been the most prolific. We've really locked into what our mission is and how we figure out our programming. Our mission always has been to serve emerging artists, and we've added arts education. Our arts education program is very robust."

Keller said he wants education to be a core component of every arts project in which the nonprofit participates and see art incorporated into every community educational need.

As examples, he pointed to the upcoming Rail-Arts-River project as a form of environmental advocacy, as well as coLAB's HearMe series that focused on social justice issues through a collaboration of oral history and theater.

"In this way, education is not a sidebar series of programming," Keller said. "We ask ourselves as an organization at every meeting and with every new project: A. 'How will it expand the experiences and body of work of professional and emerging artists?' and B. 'How can we create a lasting and substantive benefit to the community?' But this works both ways.

"If we have an idea for an 'education' project, we must ask how the artists who serve that project will be served in their own professional development," he added. "In essence, how do we connect artist to need and vice versa? This 'litmus test' has proven to be a boon for the organization practically. It creates an environment where curators are continually getting new ideas for projects because they are connected — through the coLAB — to points of inspiration."

Now in the sixth year of a residency at New Brunswick High School, coLAB instructors teach advanced acting and story writing and support the spring musical and fall play. Graduates from the high school program participated with professional theater talent in a bilingual production of "Romeo & Juliet" as part of the first New Brunswick Theater Festival co-founded by Keller in 2011.

A coLAB summer theater residency funded by the city Department of Recreation includes a student trip to the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University in West Virginia.

"We try to give the local students here as much an intensive experience as possible with professionals," Swern said.

"We like working with them because they provide authentic experiences for our students relating to the real world of theater," Superintendent of Schools Richard Kaplan added.

The nonprofit also works close with the city's Youth Advocate Programs, including youngsters struggling within the family and juvenile court systems.

Collaborators at coLAB include Lauren Connolly, Mary Kate Riecks, Bassam Kaado, Jad Kaado, Molly Graham, Molly O'Brien, Sarah Lubachevsky, Kyra Willans, Rishi Mathur, Dustin Ballard, Thakshila Upasena, and Courtney Aurillo, all young curators and volunteers sharing their talent and knowledge to support emerging artists and arts education programs.

The board of directors includes President Jeffrey Longhofer, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University and head of the department's curriculum, and Vice President Jerry Floersch, director of Rutgers' Department of Social Work. The enthusiastic board is looking for volunteers for its executive committee, Swern said.

"We're looking for … accountants, business persons, retirees interested in getting involved," he said.

Staff Writer Bob Makin: 732-565-7319;

What you can do

To collaborate and volunteer with coLAB Arts, contact the nonprofit arts organization at or visit its website. You also can enjoy the following events:

The Vom, a story slam featuring unscripted vignettes 4 to 8 minutes long by professional and amateur participants, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, World of Beer, 335 George St (sign up at

"Religion and Politics: Impact Through Censorship and Policy" with:

theBOOK, a reading and critical discussion of "Then They Came for Me" by Maziar Bahari, Feb. 18

filmLAB: screening and criticial discussion of 2005's "Water"

thePEN creative writing workshop, Feb. 21

theTABLE, community meal and discussion on religion and politics, Feb. 22

theVOM: "Preach," Feb. 26

All at locations to be announced at

Hub City Music Festival, co-produced with New Brunswick Cultural Center in benefit of Elijah's Promise and featuring Don Giovanni Records showcase, DYI scene showcase, and 48-Hour Musicals, April 9 to 19, downtown New Brunswick venues