There’s no denying the appeal of Mayor Fulop’s plan, announced Friday, to bring an outpost of the world famous Pompidou Centre to Journal Square. As described by the administration to the New York Times, Pompidou Jersey City “will be not just a gallery but a multidisciplinary cultural and educational center that could host talks, films and live performances.” Who could possible argue with such a project?
The problem with Pompidou Jersey City has nothing to do with the idea. The problem is the cost. Pompidou Jersey City will be expensive, very expensive. And the use of so much money on a cultural project that will cater largely to highly educated, well-heeled residents is simply immoral given the city’s myriad needs and vast economic disparities. If ever there was a social justice issue for Jersey Citians to rally around, this is it.
Many of the details have yet to be ironed out, but we do know enough to estimate the costs. First, there’s the $10 million already spent to acquire the Pathside Building where the museum will be built. Then, there’s the $10 to $20 million the mayor told The New York Times that renovations will cost. That’s $30 million just to turn the lights on. And, of course, as with any project, you can expect overruns.
Then there’s the cost of operating the place: It’s going to be a small fortune. For example, operating expenses at Montclair Art Museum are $5 million a year. The highly regarded Newark Museum costs $15 million a year to run. Because ticket sales amount to very little, both rely heavily on government support and endowments, the latter of which Pompidou Jersey City won’t have to draw on. Indeed, in 2019, the Newark Museum actually lost money even though it has a $41 million endowment.
But let’s assume that Pompidou Jersey City would cost only $6 million a year to run as the mayor told The Jersey Journal. With no endowment, it will rely almost exclusively on government support. That means Jersey City taxpayers will be footing the bill.
But wait. As Lasvignes might say, here’s the pièce de résistance.
According to The Times, Mayor Fulop has committed Jersey City to pay Pompidou up to $6 million a year “to cover project development, branding, educational programming and the organization of exhibitions.”
Yes, you heard right: That’s $6 million on top of operating expenses of $6 million for a total of $12 million a year stretching into the future.
How much is that in relation to Jersey City’s other outlays? It’s more than the city’s budget for Health and Human Services ($4.6 million) and Parks and Recreation ($3 million) combined.
That’s worth repeating: The proposed Pompidou museum in Journal Square will cost more money than Jersey City spends on Health and Human Services and Parks and Recreation combined.
Jersey City has a list of needs a mile long. Many of our schools are decrepit. McNair Academic High School suffers from regular flooding and insect infestations. An article this week pointed out that many of our schools lack the necessary wiring to support the air conditioners bought by parents.
The city has unmet environmental needs. As we wrote last year, Jersey City’s tree canopy has shrunk to alarming levels, exposing many of its most vulnerable residents to “heat islands” which, as the New York Times pointed out, can have dire negative health effects on people living within them.
And then, perhaps most importantly, there is poverty and crime. Our research has shown that crime has been rising in Jersey City, driven by poverty and the hopelessness that so many of our youth feel. Yet since 2013, as luxury condominiums have grown up like weeds in an abandoned lot, ground has not been broken on a single recreation center. Some blocks have been overrun by drug-selling gangs, leaving residents cowering indoors for safety. Homelessness and hunger remain major problems.
The human needs in Jersey City are vast. If the mayor is serious about moving Jersey City forward, he must commit to moving everyone forward.
Mayor Fulop deserves credit for his support of the arts and his appreciation for the contribution they make to a vibrant city. At about $1 million a year, the recently enacted taxpayer supported arts trust fund, which the mayor helped bring about, is an example of an affordable way to support the arts. Indeed, as the mayor often reminds people, it’s more than most cities have done.
And the mayor is right to focus on the redevelopment of Journal Square with its vast potential. But that development is already taking place.
Finally, Jersey City doesn’t need Pompidou to realize its artistic potential. In 2011, before Steve Fulop took office, Jersey City was ranked by Atlantic Magazine as the 10th most artistic city in America. Since then, Mana Contemporary and numerous independent galleries and studios have sprouted up across the city further cementing its arts bona fides. Neither Williamsburg nor Bushwick Brooklyn had to fork over countless millions to become hip and artsy.
According to The Times, the Centre Pompidou previously looked at other North American cities, including Chicago, but none of those plans ever “came to fruition.” Having now looked at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why those cities took a pass.