‘I can’t give up.’ Newark art gallery owner fights to stay open during the pandemic

A Newark art gallery is among the many businesses in New Jersey facing the possibility of demise because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laura Bonas Palmer is a longtime attorney who left the legal world to pour her heart and fortune into what is Newark's only Black-owned commercial art gallery. Akwaaba Gallery - the name means “Welcome” - opened in February 2019.
“In the last two years, we’ve built a community here,” Bonas Palmer says.
But the business has been crushed by the pandemic. Closed for months, the gallery canceled five shows. And its other key revenue stream - rental of the gallery and outdoor events space - disappeared. Akwaaba was left on the brink of closing.
“The not-so-easy thing to do would be to close the gallery, rent this space out,” says Bonas Palmer.
The Trump administration launched the Paycheck Protection Program last year to help small businesses get through the pandemic. But when Bonas Palmer met with attorneys and accountants, they told her she would not be eligible for funds because applicants had to declare previous-year net profits. Akwaaba, like many new ventures and many whose owner is the only employee, had none to show.
Meanwhile, Bonas Palmer watched as many large corporations received millions of dollars from the program.
“I’m a lawyer by trade, and the minute I read that one little word in there, that net profit in there, I knew that a lawyer had written that and it was done to put people at a disadvantage,” she says.
Bonas Palmer, along with her husband Ray, started the gallery not so much as a business but as a way to build community. By those standards, they say that the return on investment has been massive. Kids on their way home from school stop in for impromptu art lessons.
Visitors travel from across the region to a strip of South Orange Avenue that doesn't get a lot of visitors. and up and coming artists can show, and maybe sell their work. Two pieces by Newark artist Steve Green just sold on Tuesday morning.
“To make that phone call to tell an artist, ‘Guess what? I just sold a piece of work,’ I can’t tell you what that feels like,” Bonas Palmer says. “I want to continue to do that. I want to be able to continue to build on that.”
Bonas Palmer is now turning back to the community, with a GoFundMe campaign to cover losses and keep Akwaaba alive until it can once again live up to its name.
“I want to stay open. I can’t give this up without a fight, I can’t,” she says.
The Biden administration this week changed the rules for the PPP program to get more money to small and minority-owned businesses. But Bonas Palmer says that she is still not optimistic that the gallery will be eligible.