Journey by Osy Milian, from "I Would Prefer Not To"

Art in Jersey City has always been an experiment.  These Hudson shores attract idiosyncratic creators and cracked visionaries, and the art events we throw reflect our imagination, our recalcitrance, our suspicions about commerce and institutional power, and our deep affection for weirdness. Sometimes, given the right circumstances and kind prompting, we can even be persuaded to think big.  

But we’ve never tried anything quite like Jersey City Art Week. The event, which begins on Thursday the 12th and wraps after four busy days on Sunday the 15th, takes the All You Can Art concept of prior Jersey City autumns and expands it further. We’ll host JCAST, the state’s most storied and expansive studio tour, and Art Fair 14C, the largest exposition of its kind in New Jersey, at the same time. The International Sculpture Center will hold their yearly conference in Jersey City; MANA Contemporary will lower the drawbridge for an open house on Sunday afternoon.

Each of these, would, on its own, be compulsory viewing for artists and art appreciators. Running them simultaneously guarantees that visitors are going to miss at least some of the action — no matter how comprehensive they try to be.

This is a departure for Jersey City, and, perhaps, a sign of maturity for a changing scene. Long after the Studio Tour had ceased to feel coherent, organizers attempted to sustain the illusion that it was a self-contained event, navigable by foot (or jitney) and unified by an egalitarian mission. Nobody’s studio was supposed to be more important, or more central, than anybody else’s.

That was the ethos of the original Studio Tour, launched in 1990 by Charles Kessler and Pat Donnelly of the long-gone Gold Coast Magazine. In its early days, the Tour was administered by ProArts, Hudson County’s foremost arts advocacy organization. It was communitarian, humble, and human-scale — an experience that regional arts citizens were having together.

It hasn’t been like that for a while. In recent years, the Studio Tour devolved into an ungoverned assortment of simultaneous happenings in disparate neighborhoods. Some of these events were hives of activity. Others were empty, swallowed up by the sprawling schedule. There wasn’t much crosstalk, and very little assistance for participants on the fringes.

The inauguration of Jersey City Art Week formalizes a change that’s already happened.  Yes, there’s competition for attention; no, we aren’t all pulling in the same direction. Yes, there’ll be events all over town; no, they aren’t all weighted equally. You are encouraged to walk from one part of town to another, but nobody is expecting you to. Instead, the organizers of the Art Week are betting that there’s enough interest in the Jersey City scene to draw several large crowds at once.  By necessity, some of those crowds will not be made up of locals.  Many of the visitors will be experiencing Jersey City arts for the first time.

Thus, the next few weeks will be a stress test for a scene that has, in the past decade, existed in a perpetual state of arrival.  The amount of talent here is not in question: it’s literally visible on the walls. Privately, we believe our art scene is unrivaled by that of any mid-sized city.  What we’ve failed to do is make that case to outsiders. When we’ve thrown parties, they haven’t always been commensurate with our ambition, or the velocity of our growth. The old Studio Tour was an attempt to have it both ways — we retained the lo-fi, For Us By Us aesthetic of the original event, even as more artists were determined to get in on the action. With Jersey City Art Week, we’re dropping the pretenses. Its organizers have ensured that it can’t be mistaken for a neighborhood art crawl. We’re waking up and turning our faces, however groggily, toward the rest of the world.

As we do this, we’re bound to learn a few things about who we are. Have we, for instance, truly reached parity with comparable arts scenes in other places?  Have we stepped clear of the shadow of the behemoth across the Hudson?  Can we overcome our famous reticence and self-publicize?  When the accolades fall unevenly across the field of participants — as they surely will — will those less favored be able to celebrate the town’s success, or will jealousies and resentments get in the way? Are we truly an arts destination, or merely an accumulation of talent at the final stop before a bigger city?

We won’t get all the answers by the end of October. But Jersey City Art Week is likely to test the temperament of a scene that’s long on excellence and short on recognition.  Appreciation for originality and self-expression has made Jersey City a place where artists want to be.  Can we make it equally attractive for art collectors, art appreciators, and people who simply like to see a good show? 

The Arts Week organizers doing a brave thing. They’ve taken a storied annual event and transformed into something that suits the attitude of Jersey City as it is becoming. An act that audacious was bound to make some people unhappy. But never again can anyone accuse us of shooting low.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...