A Prince Exhibition, Curated by Teens Who Don’t Especially Like Prince

At a large gallery space in downtown Newark, where the art exhibition “Remembering the Purple One: A Tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson” has just been extended to Dec. 31, the writing is on the wall: This is not a show put together by Prince fans.

“I wouldn’t listen to Prince’s music,” reads large purple text under a set of three ’80s-era portraits of the artist.

Several docents freely admit they don’t understand his music or his style. It’s not because Prince’s music appealed to a younger generation — just the opposite. The curators are high school students — born long after Prince’s 1984 album “Purple Rain” was released — and many of them did not know much about the artist until now.

That has not prevented the show, which includes 300 artifacts on loan for the first time from a private collector, from drawing repeat visitors, including members of the New York/New Jersey Prince Fan Club. Qua’Asia Dosier, a curator, knows why. “People get excited to come here and have conversations with us,” she said.

Ms. Dosier, 16, a junior at Newark Arts High School, is one of a dozen students from four Newark schools who curated, built and installed the show, which opened in late September. The teenagers, who also serve as docents, would have chosen a different pop star if it had been entirely up to them. Some suggested SZA, the singer-songwriter who was raised in nearby Maplewood, N.J. But Prince presented a challenge and gave the exhibition liftoff.

Credit…Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times
Credit…Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times

“We wanted to pick somebody that would cause them to have to learn something,” said Thomas Owens, executive director of Mentor Newark, the nonprofit organization that brought the students together and pointed them toward an exploration of art exhibitions. Access was a factor, too. David Byer-Tyre, a Long Island artist recruited to guide the group through curation, knows the collector, Rich Benson. Mr. Benson, a Minneapolis physical therapist and Prince superfan, lent objects including guitars, costume replicas and footage of performances from Paisley Park, Prince’s home and production studio.

For visitors, the “Remembering the Purple One” experience varies entirely by age, Mr. Owens and several curators said. Teenagers who stop by after school to take a 20-minute tour led by classmates linger over photos of a young, pre-superstar Prince sporting an Afro or wearing a youth basketball uniform. “That’s relatable to them,” Mr. Owens said. Clint Laourdakis, one of the founders of the New York/New Jersey Prince Fan Club, said members, who are generally in their 40s and 50s, gravitate toward the guitars and a hologram from the 1991 record “Diamonds and Pearls.”

“The original CD and cassettes of that album came with a little hologram photo,” said Mr. Laourdakis, of Whiting, N.J. But in Newark, “they’ve gotten their hands on a big version of that hologram, and it’s actually pretty cool.”

Serious Prince fans appreciate the chance to share insights and trivia with a younger generation.

“They want to talk about their own experiences,” said Danna Prado, 17, a senior at Arts High. “You can feel their awe. I love that, and they love it, too.”

“People ask us, ‘Why Prince?’” said Princess Clarke, left, with Jushiya Dungee. “That’s just the cards we’ve been dealt.”Credit…Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times

That’s a relief for Mr. Owens. This spring, when administrators at Arts High asked him to create a project that would engage visual arts students, he wasn’t sure this would work. “It’s not like we said ‘Prince’ and stars jumped in the students’ eyes,” he said.

But the students have mostly come around. Accounts of the artist’s influence and legacy have helped. Prince, who died in 2016, is among the best-selling musicians of all time. He wrote hundreds of songs — including “Little Red Corvette,” which was among the first videos by Black artists played in heavy rotation on MTV — and for a while changed his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol, becoming known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

Still, enthusiasm for Prince among the student curators has its limits. “People ask us, ‘Why Prince?’” said Princess Clarke, 16, a junior at Bard High School Early College Newark. “That’s just the cards we’ve been dealt.”

But in talking to visitors, Ms. Clarke doesn’t always reveal her ambivalence. “I try to sugarcoat it for them,” she said. “If they ask me my favorite Prince song, I’ll tell them ‘Kiss’ is a song I’ve enjoyed.”

Mr. Owens and Mr. Byer-Tyre encourage the docents to express themselves. “They’ve taken ownership of what they’ve done,” Mr. Owens said, “and when they’re interacting with the public it shows.”

Visitors’ experiences at the show tend to vary by age.Credit…Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times

Occasionally, the students can relate to the breathless, Prince-obsessed strangers they encounter. Ms. Prado, for one, has developed an appreciation she never saw coming. “Because I’m hearing his music constantly, I’ve found myself slowly becoming a fan,” she said. “I love how different he is, how out there and bold. Sometimes he gives me chills. We may never get another Prince in our lifetime.”

“Remembering the Purple One: A Tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson” is on view Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., until Dec. 31 at the Hahne & Co. Building, 50 Halsey St., Newark. Admission is free.

Related Articles

Back to top button