EAST ORANGE, NJ — The East Orange Public Library’s art section just got a lot bigger, after a donation of more than 500 books from artist Nell Irvin Painter. The donation contains an array of books about black artists, art history and different art movements. A writer and artist who is a history professor emerita at Princeton University, Painter holds an MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and a doctorate from Harvard University.
“This was such a wonderful gift that will help provide our community with additional resources,” acting library Director Pamela Holmes said in a press release about the donation on March 21. “The library also serves as a community center that ensures our patrons’ educational and recreational needs are met through various programming initiatives.”
Layla Abdallah, the EOPL’s community relations coordinator, said she had read several of Painter’s eight books, so was familiar with the artist when Painter told the library about the donation. According to Abdallah, the donation consists of most — if not all — of the collection Painter had been building for decades.
“It’s great for us and increases the collection tenfold,” Abdallah said in a phone interview with the Record-Transcript on March 24. “Most of them are a lot more large-scale books. They’re hyper specific about styles and painters.”
Painter grew up in Oakland, Calif. Her art career began after she retired as a full-time history professor at Princeton and she went back to school to receive a BFA in art at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. She finished her MFA at RISD a few years ago; a memoir about her art school experience, “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over,” was published in 2018.
Painter declined to comment through her agent, Michael D’Andrea, in a phone interview with the Record-Transcript on March 25; D’Andrea said Painter is in the middle of working on a new book and an artist residency. But Abdallah said Painter told the library staff why she wanted to give her large collection away.
“She mentioned how the library was getting bigger, and wanted it to go to someone who would use it,” Abdallah said.
The EOPL does take donations but hasn’t since before the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020 because of the closures; for a while the library wasn’t able to check out physical items due to concerns about spreading the virus. Now that library operations are moving closer to a pre-pandemic normal, Abdallah said the EOPL is excited for the new haul.
“This is the first donation since coming back, and we wanted to incorporate it into our collection,” she said. “Some are books that you’d sit down and read, but a lot are not and are reference books. She’s an artist that has a lot of presence in Newark and in the area, so she wanted them to go here. It’s great for our library to have been selected.”
The EOPL is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wi-Fi is accessible outside the building even when the library is closed.