For the past five years, Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC’s) James Kerney Campus Gallery (JKCG) has been adding photography-based art to the creative imagination of the city of Trenton. Thanks to some innovative approaches borne out during the pandemic, JKCG is reaching far larger audiences than ever envisioned.

Located in MCCC’s Trenton Hall at 137 N. Broad Street, JKCG is directed and curated by Professor Michael Chovan-Dalton, the coordinator of the college’s photography program.

Chovan-Dalton had big visions for the gallery when it opened its doors in 2017, and while many of those goals have been realized, it remains a “work in progress,” he says.

“I wanted our new gallery to become part of an already vibrant Trenton arts scene and to serve as a magnet for local and regional lens-based artists, as well as a destination for nationally recognized artists. I also wanted to give MCCC photography students experience with how shows are curated and installed and opportunities to engage with the artists.”

With 28 exhibits thus far, JKCG exhibits have embraced a wide variety of themes: powerful, often provocative, portraiture; social justice commentary; humans’ connection to their urban and natural environments; and cultures and places both familiar and foreign. Among numerous local artists to exhibit at the gallery are Habiyb Shu’Aib (“Beloved Trenton” in 2017) and Heather Palecek (“Resist Convenience” in 2021).

“Heather and Habiyb are part of a dedicated group of community members who come to every show and participate in all of the events. They are a key link to the community,” Chovan-Dalton said, adding that regional artist Ryann Casey has also become instrumental at JKCG. She teaches art history and photography at MCCC, has exhibited at JKCG, and has co-curated several shows and panel talks with him.

During the pandemic year of 2020, when in-person gatherings were difficult, Chovan-Dalton began working with Palecek and Shu’Aib to launch “Third Thursdays,” monthly artist talks hosted by JKCG in a hybrid format, allowing guests to attend in person (when possible) or remotely. Third Thursdays have become a popular staple of every gallery show; several shows have generated multiple panel discussions on topics from gun violence to domestic abuse.

Third Thursdays are curated by Palecek and Shu’Aib, while Chovan-Dalton gets to switch hats from curator to host, providing tech support, keeping track of the questions, and making sure everyone stays connected. “The response to Third Thursdays has been phenomenal,” he reports. “We have even had guest artists and audience members from other countries.” The next Third Thursday event, on Feb. 17 at 6:30 p.m., will feature C.a. Shofed in person at the gallery, and Clinton Thornton-Casanova remotely from Switzerland. (More information and sign-in here.)

According to Chovan-Dalton, each show holds an element of surprise. “We might have an audience of mostly community members at one show and then mostly followers of a particular artist or artists from outside the region at another event,” he said. “There are times when gallery audiences far exceed expectations, and other times when I am surprised by low turnout.”

Participation by MCCC Photography students has become an extension of their classroom learning. “Faculty members present exhibitors’ work to our students as a means of showing them what is out there being made and being looked at,” Chovan-Dalton said, adding that last year, there was more interest from Mercer Photography students than ever before, a trend he hopes will continue.

“Students help me install shows, manage receptions, and volunteer for gallery hours,” Chovan-Dalton said. “I believe that kind of experience is very unusual for a community college program.”

For JKCG’s most recent exhibit, “Homecoming,” which closed January 29, Chovan-Dalton worked with a group of photographers and editors to painstakingly select an international exhibit of works submitted by photography students who have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees during the pandemic. Works by 140 artists were displayed on the walls, while another 100 images were shown on a continuous loop captured on a large monitor.

“These students were denied the satisfaction and creative rite of passage of exhibiting their work with their peers,” Chovan-Dalton explained. “We wanted to give them extra opportunities to make up for some of what they may have missed. The show presented as broad a range of work as we could fit on the gallery walls. We hope this exposure will lead to more opportunities for these talented graduates.”

The to-do list to plan and execute each show is extensive: scheduling; transporting the work; creating registration forms for guests; installing the show; making posters and postcards; taking care of the website, email lists and social media; creating a remote gallery tour; setting up and breaking down the equipment for a hybrid event for in-person and remote participation; securing student volunteers; taking down the show and repacking the work; returning the work; and, finally, patching and painting the walls to prepare for the next exhibit.

That’s for every show, and Chovan-Dalton does the lion’s share himself.

While the gallery has faced its share of challenges during the pandemic, some of them have turned into opportunities. “JKCG carried on, presenting more shows and events during the pandemic than before the pandemic,” Chovan-Dalton said. “We added Third Thursdays and remote exhibit tours. We kept the gallery open, either physically or virtually, or both at the same time.”

As he looks to the future, Chovan-Dalton is determined to build on JKCG’s current momentum. “We will continue to challenge, surprise, and stimulate our community of artists and gallery supporters. I want to bring in more guest curators to maintain a good diversity of ideas and to continue to expand our community connections and our following. As a result of the pandemic, I have thought more about our audience as being anyone with a computer and internet access.”