A new and somewhat uncertain era for the arts begins today in South Orange, as the Baird’s Judy Wukitsch officially steps down. Popular, influential and sometimes controversial, Wukitsch co-founded and directed the Pierro Gallery, built the annual Giants of Jazz concert and vastly expanded arts education and programming.
Star Ledger art critic Dan Bischoff tells Baristanet: “I have to say I’m not sure where the Baird is headed now, but Judy’s departure is as much about New Jersey’s relative disinvestment in the visual arts as its budgets crater as it is about Judy’s work. She was able to bring a wide and diverse group of artists, academics, and local amateurs together to create a really vivid art scene in a near-in suburb of New York–something that, in its aesthetic daring, seemed more like an art outpost in lower Manhattan than a Jersey outlier.”
Wukitsch and her late husband, Lennie Pierro, an art professor at Kean University, opened the Galley of South Orange as volunteers in 1994; it was later renamed for him. In more than 12 years as assistant director of recreation and cultural affairs, Wukitsch brought tens of thousands of dollars in grants to the Baird and drew major artists, helping the town to sell itself as a vibrant, diverse center for the arts. Wukitsch gave notice in May. In 2009, arts supporters had rallied to save her job from elimination amid budget cuts.
“Much of what Judy achieved was oddly personal, built upon the contacts she and her late husband had forged over years in the community,” says Bischoff. “It was hip, often fearless (I saw my first painting that dealt directly with the attack on the WTC towers at the Baird, when every museum and gallery in New York still thought the subject too radioactive), and entirely sui generis. I’m glad I’m not the guy who has to replace her.”
Wukitsch also led a years-long fight to install in South Orange a sculpture by the late Tony Smith, a village resident and internationally-known artist. Wukitsch, Smith’s widow, who donated the sculpture, and their supporters wanted the massive piece, Tau, installed downtown. Instead, it was raised in Meadowlands Park, near the duck pond, in 2008.
Says Wukitsch, of what stands for her as the symbol of her work in South Orange: “Possibly Tau, by Tony Smith, a seminal work by a significant third generation South Orange artist. But Giants of Jazz is known well beyond NJ, and the Pierro Gallery has a significant reputation with artists in the tri-state area. Also, the arts classes–developed from the five I taught to over 30 for all ages all by professional artists. These these aren’t tangible ‘symbols,’ but do reflect the image of South Orange today.”
She remembered the first night of the first Giants of Jazz concerts, with Dizzy Gillespie; Wukitsch and co-producer, guitarist and SO resident John Lee, initially conceived of it as a fundraiser. “I knew that first night of Giants, that it would have an amazing life of its own…and it has.”
Her years with the Baird have been a great experience, Wukitsch said. “I have lived it, I have loved it and still do…now it is simply time for me to move on. I have absolutely no plans although I know there is a world of possibilities out there.”
How would she advise a successor? “My strongest recommendation to an incoming arts person, as well as the current department director, is to have a vision. The current programs came through brainstorms, vision, and dreams of possibilities. But you must dream first.”
Questions of mission, leadership and funding are now before the village’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee (CAAC)
, chaired by artist Susan Napack. Marilyn Hayden is the acting chair; she and CAAC member Susan Napack are representing the committee in the search for a new arts director, Napack says.
For a look at what Wukitsch created, catch Committee/Committed: Pierro @ 16, exhibit, through July 18.