There’s a cool Prince exhibit in Newark — and it was curated by high school students

Display in Hahne building that started as project by Mentor Newark has become hit with Prince fans from around region

The pictures — before “Purple Rain” and after it — are everywhere. As are posters and prints and even a few guitars. Purple, of course.

The Prince display, currently in the Hahne & Co. building in Newark, is what you would expect from an exhibit on the life and times of one of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years.

Thomas Owens.

Here’s what you wouldn’t expect: The pieces were curated by a group of Newark high school students, who now serve as docents — or tour guides — for their own exhibit.

The display, housed in a 2,000-square-foot space on the first floor of the Hahne building, is the latest effort by Mentor Newark, a doing-great-things-that-you-may-not-know-about nonprofit that has been impacting the lives of students for more than a decade.

It started as a kernel of an idea last spring, when officials at Arts High School reached out to Mentor Newark in search of a project for their students.

Thomas Owens, the executive director of Mentor Newark, took it from there: Using a local connection to reach out to a Prince collector in Minneapolis, convincing him to lend out his Prince paraphernalia.

It’s now a full-blown exhibit — one that is drawing visitors not only from Newark and New Jersey but from outside of the state. All while giving the students an inside look into a curation profession many may not have known existed.

The display, scheduled to run through Halloween, was extended to the end of this year by popular demand. Its value is that great, he said.

“You think it’s about Prince, but it’s really about these kids and what they have done,” he said.


The parents of some of the students may not have experienced the phenomenon that was the movie and the album, “Purple Rain,” in 1984. The students themselves had not yet been born when Prince partied like it was 1999. In fact, the students were still in grade school when Prince died in 2016.

The 14 students involved in the project, made up mostly of students from Arts High, but also some from Bard and West Side, first had to learn about Prince himself, doing so by watching various movies and clips. And, of course, listening to the music.

David Byre-Tyre with some of the students.

Introducing them to Prince has been part of the fun, Owens said.

“They may have heard the name, but they really didn’t know who he was,” he said.

The students also were not aware of how museums operate.

“The idea was to create something where they can learn about curation, learn about museums and jobs they’ve never heard of,” Owens said.

Soon after, the two things came together. The kids were going through boxes of items that were on loan from collector Rich Benson, working with a local mentor, artist David Byre-Tyre, to pick the pieces for the exhibit.

“They were learning about every step of the process — from examining the pictures and making sure they handled them correctly, to actually creating the space by building walls, and choosing the artwork and choosing the flow of the exhibit,” Owens said.

“The goal was that they would have the exhibit their own.”

That didn’t stop when the display opened in September. The students work as tour guides, too — another part of the museum puzzle.


Like all nonprofits, Mentor Newark can’t go it alone.

Owens gave special thanks to the New Jersey Devils Youth Foundation and Newark Alliance for their financial contributions to the project. The city of Newark, helped too, as the students — who worked throughout the summer to put the project together — were paid through the city’s summer youth employment program.

Bradley Vaiana.

The exhibit also has helped raise money for — and awareness of — Mentor Newark.

When Mentor Newark held its first gala this fall, the students showed off part of their project to attendees.

Bradley Vaiana, a partner and Private Equity Practice co-chair at Winston & Strawn and a longtime Mentor Newark board member, said the impact was real.

“The coolest thing about this is that it provides an objective, tangible, impactful moment when you want to encourage people to be the lifeline of the organization,” he said. “It makes it more than just this amorphous concept of mentoring.

“Having the students who helped create the exhibit present items that they were curating at the PAC was everything. Our donors were able to actually see it and talk to the students and feel their energy, it made it so much more real.

“For me, that physical manifestation of the organizational impact was there on display for people — and I think that really meant a lot.”


The exhibit started with simple hours: 4-6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday — or enough hours for the kids to show off their efforts without missing too much of school. The hope was to attract some Newark groups. And it has.

But it has grown to include Purple Thursdays and prime time Fridays, where there is a DJ (playing … who else?) to add to a more festive atmosphere from 6-9.

Guests at the exhibit.

On the weekends, it often opens for private tours. This past weekend, the Prince fan club from New Jersey/New York came — for the second time.

There is no admission cost, but Owens said they willingly accept donations — especially from private groups. Not a lot, just enough to keep it going.

Where the exhibit goes from here isn’t as clear. Owens hopes it will be extended into next year. He said he is talking with some local colleges for assistance.

Owens also hopes the curation concept will be used again. He feels it has been a spectacular learning experience.

“We took the kids to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and they were able to understand all of the different roles that are there,” he said. “We took them to see the Jay-Z exhibit in Brooklyn, and they came back with ideas for their own exhibit.”

That’s what the process was all about, Owens said.

“We saw this was a great opportunity to teach and great opportunity for young people to learn,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about.”