In 2023, our arts organizers went big. Jersey City Art Week was the most ambitious, most coordinated, and most ballyhooed event local organizers had ever attempted. The state’s largest art fair in the middle of Liberty State Park! Open studios at MANA Contemporary! An international sculpture conference! The 34th annual Jersey City Art and Studio Tour! All at the same time!
In 2024, things are looking different.
For starters — and maybe most consequentially — Art Fair 14C won’t be back next year. Just before the big exposition at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal wrapped, director Robinson Holloway announced that the Fair would skip autumn 2024, regroup, and return in the spring of 2025. For the first year since 2019, a Fair that has become a defining feature of the creative landscape will not be an anchor on the arts calendar.
Then there’s MANA Contemporary. The byzantine warren of studios and exhibition spaces at the western end of Newark Avenue has been teasing a comprehensive renovation for more than a year. What a physical overhaul means for artists and art viewers isn’t completely clear yet. But there’s an awfully good chance that that building project will happen in 2024, and that’ll surely mean limited access to the institution while it gestates in its chrysalis.
And what of the Studio Tour, the beloved October citywide art party? This year, Art Fair 14C ran JCAST for the first time, taking the reins from a cash-strapped city government with no appetite for a reprise. While some of the events did draw decent crowds, the Art Week was a vindication for those who’d argued that the Tour was likely to be overshadowed by the Fair, the open studios at MANA, and the sculpture conference. Attendance at many JCAST events — especially those located far from the Downtown and the PATH train stations — was painfully slack. Many of the artists and gallerists I spoke with in the wake of the Tour expressed unhappiness with the priorities of the Art Week organizers and their decision to run so many shows and events at once. Yet with the Art Fair on temporary hiatus, would the Studio Tour be able to carry an Art Week by itself?
Another local organization — perhaps the Jersey City Arts Council, a group created for just this sort of contingency — might be able to step into the breach and supervise the next JCAST. But as we approach the holiday season, the arts event calendar for 2024 is in shambles. If the experience of 2023 taught us anything, it’s that events like JCAST and 14C require months of meticulous planning. Uncertainty in December does not augur well for the year to follow.
The irony is that Jersey City Art Week was a great aesthetic success. The fifth version of 14C was, without a doubt, the best event the organization has ever done. It featured excellent, imaginative paintings and sculptures from many of the finest artists in the state. In the railroad terminal, it finally found a home that matched its scope, its historicity, and its tone. MANA hosted one of the year’s best curated shows in its downstairs gallery: Maria De Los Angeles’s smart, energetic, kaleidoscopic “Notes on Experimentation.” JCAST 2023 showcased exceptional work in neighborhoods all over town, including a superb sculpture show at Novado Gallery in the PAD, a conceptual powerhouse at SMUSH in McGinley Square, and a lively experimental fashion show at Drawing Rooms in Marion.
It would be a terrible shame to leave it at that. Arts leaders must figure out a way to follow up on the creative momentum of October. After the municipal government loudly heralded Jersey City Art Week as a showcase for the scene, a step backward would be demoralizing for us and delegitimizing for the many watching us. It’d be foolish to retire the Art Week after a single attempt. An attenuated version doesn’t make much sense, either. Jersey City needs a plan, quickly, to come up with something that is, at the very least, equally grand. If 14C and MANA aren’t going to be part of the next citywide party, substitutes — or improvements — need to be found.
The skeptics were probably right. This year, arts leaders and the municipal Office of Cultural Affairs took on more than the community could handle, hyped their citywide event too hard, and failed to support or fund it adequately. Nevertheless, in a town where organizers haven’t always been willing to think big, it’s hard to knock the ambition of the Art Week showrunners. For many people in town used to small horizons, it felt like a shot of oxygen. Jersey City Art Week raised the stakes for everybody in town with a creative project, from big institutions like MANA to little cafés hanging a few paintings on the wall. We told the world we were ready to be seen. Taking that back isn’t an option. 2024 demands a plan. And time is running out.