To get into the renovated Ballantine House, you must tread on a map of Newark. Roads, train tracks and waterways stretch across the floor of the house’s old kitchen, which is now the frontier zone between the American art galleries at The Newark Museum of Art and the preserved mansion that has belonged to the museum since the Depression. More than a century ago in this room, nonwhite servants cooked meals for the Ballantines, one of Newark’s wealthiest families, heirs to a fortune made brewing beer and ale. As you tread on the map, you may notice how many of the streets beneath your feet are long gone.
Giants also stride around Newark in a five-minute film that plays on a loop in a gallery on the second floor of The Ballantine House. “Stay” matches spoken text by Newark artist Noelle Lorraine Williams, creator of the multimedia project “Black Power! 19th Century,” to images of two massive bodies ambling about Broad Street. They’re so tall that their heads don’t fit in the frame, but we can tell they are African-American. The film’s narration travels fast through three centuries of Newark history, reminding us of the city’s antebellum slave markets, the civil unrest of the 1960s and those missing streets, extracted from the town grid in the name of urban renewal — or, as one of the film’s subjects calls it, “Negro removal.”
The film and the room that surrounds it were created to redress an injustice: the erasure of African-American narratives from the stories we tell about the development of the Garden State’s biggest city. In the final shot of the film, a monument of a white Colonial warrior dissolves into a statue of a Black woman.
The new Ballantine House, which reopened to the public in November, isn’t always as blunt as that. But the multimillion-dollar restoration does attempt a muscular intervention in the conventional history of Newark, bringing the stories of workers, cooks and builders into the foreground. The Ballantine family is still the focus of the exhibit, but they are never alone in the mansion. A portrait photograph of Alice, the Ballantine daughter, is now flanked by two shots of African-American youths. The 1971 painting “Black Couple in Bed Looking at TV,” by Dmitri Wright, peers down from the wall of the primary bedroom. In the parlor, a boardgame celebrating African-American art — “G.O.A.T. The Art Game”, a social sculpture by DARNstudio, comprised of multi- and interdisciplinary artists David Anthone and Ron Norsworthy — is set up on an antique table. You also can play it upstairs, if you like.
Through curation, framing and shrewd selections from the museum’s collection, we are reminded at every step that the house was a microcosm of Newark society, with all the trappings of wealth supported and maintained by laborers whose names have been lost to the ages.
It also continues to speak, as it always has, of a wealthy Newark that once was.
The Ballantine House, completed in 1885 and declared a National Historic Landmark in the 1980s, was once one of many grand mansions that fronted Washington Park. It is the only one that made it to 2024 — and in order to avoid the wrecker’s hammers, it had to throw in with the local museum.
Its carved-wood interior walls, stained-glass windows, grandfather clocks, portraits and elaborately decorated furnishings were, at the time, symbols of refinement and taste. Even if they strike the modern eye, accustomed to post-industrial austerity, as overdone and busy, it is hard not to admire the sheer amount of craftsmanship and discernment that the Ballantines put on display in their domestic quarters. The Newark Museum of Art has moved to popularize and democratize The Ballantine House, but this remains a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous exhibit, and an act of admiration, however grudging, of purchasing power and conspicuous consumption.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the first gallery you will see. The dining room is dominated by a new installation: “Party Time,” by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
The sculptor has seated eight brown-skinned mannequins around the Ballantine table and decked them out in Dutch wax-cloth dresses and suits with African-inspired patterns. They are dining on heaps of strawberries, grapes, oysters and bird’s eggs; to the side, a servant (also brown-skinned) brings a peacock on a silver tray. One guest has her expensively shod feet up on the table while others gesticulate, goblets in hand, caught in mid-conversation. The whole scene gleams like a spent coin. This is, according to the artist, a “Reimagined America”: seizure and reappropriation of the marks of class by the dispossessed. The playfully confrontational tone of the piece is hard to miss, especially since the mannequins, like Noelle Lorraine Williams’ striding giants, have no heads.
Why are these figures decapitated? Perhaps Shonibare is saying something about human posture, and proximity, and doesn’t want expressions getting in the way of messages best sent through body language. Maybe he’s even making a sly comment about the French Revolution, the implicit violence of social class, and the torment of deprivation and material desire. But most likely, he wants to encourage visitors to identify with his subjects. He is betting that viewers will find it easier to see themselves in his figures if he doesn’t give them individual faces. You may find your place in this party, drinking Mr. Ballantine’s wine, usurping their social position, trading places with the ruling class.
This is both audacious and entertaining. Given its revolutionary spirit, you might even call it commendable. As an art piece, it works beautifully. But it’s exactly where historical exhibits — exhibits designed to show visitors something specific about the past — run into trouble. “Party Time” is a work of speculative fiction: a manifestation of a widely held desire for social mobility and king-for-a-day reversals of fortune. Placed close to the kitchen as the installation is, it is easy to imagine the Ballantine servants entertaining these fantasies; a modern Newarker touring the House, surrounded by traces of the city’s past opulence, might well feel the same way. Shonibare and the Museum have made the ghosts of The Ballantine House visible, and that act of summoning gives the installation, and the first story of the renovated mansion, a seismic jolt.
Nevertheless, the piece is deliberately and provocatively anachronistic, and in history, chronology still matters. It’s arguable that nothing matters more.
The Newark Museum of Art recently tried something similarly disruptive in its American galleries, juxtaposing austere old masters with new voices, teasing out connections between traditions, and putting its early collection in the chilling context of the triangle trade. By upending linear continuity, the curators caught visitors off-guard, rattled the cage of their expectations, and increased their susceptibility to new ideas.
Such techniques don’t translate to The Ballantine House without friction. The great value of the mansion next door is that it provides a credible simulation of a Newark house as it was. The interruptions and breaches of realism provide excitement, but they also muddy the waters. The museum, for instance, has hung striking paintings from the permanent collection in the main hall, including a few pieces that glorify the laborer. These work as a commentary on the surroundings, but they also disturb the immersion that The Ballantine House depends on.
The old narrative of Newark was the oppressor’s narrative. It minimized the contributions of women and African-Americans, and deserved to be upturned. Any re-engagement with The Ballantine House needed to grapple with these ugly facts. The designers of the new exhibit can pride themselves on presenting one that is much better attuned with the experience of centuries of marginalized people. They have channeled those energies and frustrations, and brought troubling undercurrents to the surface.
That is what artists and storytellers do. But not every story is history. No art auction boardgames were played in these halls. No abstract paintings hung on the walls. No brown-skinned people threw parties in the dining room. No Black baby doll took pride of place in Alice Ballantine’s bed. All of these things may exist deep in our collective symbolic imagination, but they didn’t happen in The Ballantine House as it was.
By putting a dent in the 1884-ness of The Ballantine House, the creators of the new exhibit threaten to erase another part of Newark’s history: its late-19th century prosperity. That’s not as bad as it was. But it’s still not ideal.
For information, visit newarkmuseumart.org.
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