Art Spaces Adjust to a New Reality


Drawing Rooms was ready for spring.

The West Side gallery was set to welcome visitors to an extraordinary show: “Hands and Other Symbols,” a burst of color and imaginative design. Then came the pathogen — and with it curfews and closures.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do to move forward in the current climate,” says Anne Trauben, curator and exhibition director of Drawing Rooms (www.drawingrooms.org).

Like other arts leaders around town, Trauben is concerned about the future of the space she has created. The “Hands and Other Symbols” party at Drawing Rooms on the 14th of March may well be remembered as the last opening in Jersey City for a very long time.

The mood on March 1 — the first Jersey City Fridays of the year — had been hopeful. The gallery at Art House mounted an elegiac tribute to the late local painter Hamlet Manzueta. The SMUSH Gallery in McGinley Square allowed dancer and artist Myssi Robinson to decorate its walls with a dazzling array of sawtooth-shaped triangles. Pat Lay’s wry show, in which she teased religious symbolism out of computer processors, was still running at the new Dvora Gallery. All over town, the work on view was imaginative, provocative and playful, and there was promise of more to come.

Today, those rooms are silent. The global health crisis has emptied out the galleries and closed the doors of our creative spaces. Most of the arts institutions in Jersey City work on thin margins. Even in good times, it’s difficult to keep galleries solvent. Frozen in place and with few ways to act, local curators face an unprecedented challenge.

Some of the larger institutions have made a transition to digital-only exhibitions. MANA Contemporary (www.manacontemporary.com), for instance, has moved all of its programming to its website. Art House Productions (www.arthouseproductions.org), one of the older and more active arts organizations in Hudson County, maintains a virtual gallery, and continues to host activities and performances through its site.

“We’ve implemented some online programming which seems to be working well,” says Art House Gallery curator Andrea McKenna. “We had a ‘virtual story slam’ and Drag Bingo hosted by Harmonica Sunbeam this past Friday. We’re gearing up for another week with more programs.”

Art House attendees are accustomed to regular exhibitions, and McKenna isn’t keen on breaking that streak even if congregating is prohibited. The April show will be shown in the Art House vestibule, and the opening will be held at a later date. There’ll also be a taped component to the show that will be hosted on the organization’s website.

“My advice to my fellow artists,” says McKenna, “is to take this time to create. It’s the one that I have that truly centers me. If I’m in a good state of mind, I can properly help others who need me.”

That sort of communitarian spirit is at the heart of the SMUSH Gallery (www.smushgallery.com), but SMUSH, like most smaller Jersey City arts spaces, lacks the resources necessary to create an internet-only alternative to the brick-and-mortar McGinley Square space it calls home. For now, one of our town’s brightest lights has been dimmed.

“I’m not ambitious about replacing our in-gallery programming with online content,” says curator and owner Katelyn Halpern. “It doesn’t make sense for SMUSH to compete with organizations and companies that have really figured out how to do this.”

“Being a young, active arts organization took all our available work hours, and creating a contingency for long-term shutdown just never made the to-do list.”

For Halpern, running a gallery and performance space means physical proximity to other people — which is exactly what we’ve all been cautioned not to do. Halpern designed the space as a neighborhood hangout. With congregating discouraged, she explains, SMUSH can’t act as the facilitator of community involvement that it was created to be.

“SMUSH is about people being together with art and each other,” says Halpern, “and that’s not happening right now, so SMUSH is not really happening right now. We do plan to be back once this is over, but we’re also realistic about how unknowable the rest of the year is.”

Halpern isn’t worried about the immediate future — SMUSH just had its major fundraiser — but, like Trauben, expresses concerns about the long-term viability of the enterprise. For creators of small galleries like SMUSH, Drawing Rooms and Deep Space, the business is a labor of love: They’re here for the art first and the money only after that. Bayard, the prime mover at Eonta Space (www.eontaspacenj.com), agrees with Halpern about both the difficulty of transitioning to online presentation and a sense of mission that transcends financial considerations.

“When it comes to Eonta,” says Bayard, “money can just kiss my ass. Eonta is about art in its purest sense. We don’t charge anything, we don’t take commissions. And online is altogether too much work for too small a reward because art should be up in your face, live and in person.”

The spring Eonta show, an exhibition called “Multiply” featuring prints, marbling, and photography, has been postponed until the fall. Bayard is upstate for the duration of the crisis, and Eonta is on hold. Nevertheless, he refuses to get down, and he has some advice for Jersey City that’s commensurate with his status as a local provocateur.

“Create something beautiful, or not,” says Bayard, “but create a life that is worthy of living and that is worthy of art, and create art that is worthy of life.”

“Don’t be blue, be Yves Klein blue.”

Photo courtesy Drawing Rooms, from “Hands and Other Symbols”.

 

Header: Self-Portrait by David W. Cummings

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Tris McCall

About Tris McCall

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, the Jersey Journal, the Jersey City Independent, and New Jersey dot com. He also writes about things that have no relevance to New Jersey. Not today, though.