“Cuffed to the Game” by BARC the dog
“Cuffed to the Game” by BARC the dog

In March 2020, darkness descended on a pair of life-affirming art exhibitions. Ironically, both “Hands and Other Symbols” at Drawing Rooms and “One Year After” at the Art House Gallery were elegies of sorts: retrospectives of artists and longtime Jersey City residents David Cummings and Hamlet Manzueta, both of whom died in 2019. Neither lived to see the disaster looming around the corner. The memory of their excellent shows was, for me, a sustaining force through the early days of the pandemic. Then, just like you, I was overwhelmed with other concerns.

The global health crisis that turned out the lights on galleries, clubs, and art spaces in 2020 is far from over. But in 2021, many of the places where we gather to see the works of the creative people who inspire us cautiously reopened, with curatorial fingers crossed, breaths held, and new regulations posted on gallery walls. And although it seems unlikely that all of the shuttered spaces will be back, those that did return picked up where they left off — a little more haunted, a little scarred, but determined to keep the flame of the arts burning during a time when too many candles were snuffed out.

Small independent galleries continue to lead the way

And in New Jersey — and in Hudson County in particular — it’s ever been thus. Before the pandemic, the pace was set by a few tiny galleries, many of them no larger than a corner bodega. These spots are quirky, which you’d expect: they’re art spaces run by single proprietors with funny ideas about what’s worth seeing and what isn’t. Their independence is the guarantor of their collective integrity, and their personalities, more than any other force, are the defining factor in the tone and tenor of our arts scene.

This was particularly true in the second year of the pandemic. Larger players, caught flat-footed, struggled to adapt to changing circumstances. That cleared the field for the little galleries — and for a while in early 2021, small shows were all we had. The indispensable Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison), run by Keith Van Pelt and Jenna Geiger, stepped into the breach with confidence and continued their work of reconciling street art with the shifting tastes of collectors. Anne Novado’s beautiful Novado Gallery (110 Morgan) was one of the first art spaces to re-open, and it had another excellent season, with a succession of shows that displayed that distinctive combination of elegance, whimsy, beauty, and conceptual provocation that characterizes everything its proprietor does. Meanwhile, on the edge of Journal Square, multimedia space SMUSH (340 Summit) mounted a series of serrated-edged shows that grappled, bravely, with the anxieties of urban life during a plague year. SMUSH director Katelyn Halpern seems determined to create a place that underdogs can call theirs. This transplanted Texan has shown she’s got a true Garden State temperament.

Other small galleries took a giant step toward centrality. Outlander (126 Monticello) has become a linchpin of Jersey City’s most exciting streetPRIME (351 Palisade) had a strong year; so well curated and immersive were Maria Kosdan’s shows that you’d (almost) forget they’re hung inside a real estate office. The DVORA Pop-Up Gallery (160 1st) enlivened an otherwise impersonal and condo-fied block in the Warehouse District with a slate of exhibitions by local favorites. Ben Fine’s portrait subjects, comfortable in their big pink chair, beamed back at us from the walls of Gallery 313 (313 3rd) in a congenial Studio Tour highlight.

Yet a few lovely spaces remain lost in the mist. No pictures have enlivened the sun-drenched Panepinto Gallery in over a year. Curious Matter (272 5th), a tiny but gorgeous room in a Downtown row house, has, understandably, scaled back its activities. The big, rambunctious voice of Bayard from EONTA Space (34 DeKalb) has been missing from the local chorus, and we’ve been poorer for that; the website suggests EONTA will be closed for the “foreseeable future,” which does not sound promising. And it’s worth noting that while the organizers of “Hands and Other Symbols” and “One Year After” have kept awfully busy, the exhibition galleries at Drawing Rooms headquarters and the old Art House have been quiet since the curtain came down hard in March 2020.

Co-ordination among the bigger players  

Art House Productions has a reason for that: this well-established but peripatetic organization is once again between homes. Pandemic permitting, they’ll reopen in a new building on Morgan Street in 2022. Without a permanent space, Art House spent 2021 making shrewd roster moves and extending the reach and reputation of Jersey City’s best-known arts brand. Art House’s absorption of the scrappy Jersey Art Exchange in winter ’21 turned out to be a prelude to a coup. In what turned out to be the most consequential development of the year, Art House merged with the Art Fair 14C in the spring, and 14C founder Robinson Holloway was named president of the Art House Board of Trustees. The partnership paid off mightily in the fall, when Art House and 14C, under the guidance of Holloway, deputy directors Gretchen Von Koenig and Kristin DeAngelis, Art House artistic director Meredith Burns and Art House producing director Courtney Little mounted the crispest, smartest, most stylish, and most aesthetically successful visual art event Jersey City has seen in many moons. Whether these institutions will continue to work together is an open question in a place as fractious as Jersey City; for now, they can bask in the well-earned accolades that accrued to them after their successful collaboration.

DeAngelis, meanwhile, continued her fruitful association with the Silverman company, mounting a series of gallery-quality shows in the atria of two of their Downtown condominium buildings. Anybody can walk in and appreciate the exhibitions at The Majestic Theatre Condominiums (222 Montgomery) and Hamilton Square Condominiums (232 Pavonia), making their ground floors de facto art spaces, and extensions of the fine work that DeAngelis had been doing at her own 107 Bowers Gallery & Art Space before its closure. Shuster Development is a good deal more parsimonious about access. But their partnership with Jim Pustorino of Drawing Rooms has placed good paintings from celebrated Jersey City names on the landings of each of the floors of their condominium buildings in the Powerhouse Arts District, and this Art Project was open to the public for tours during Jersey City Fridays and other special events.

Many factors made 14C a hit, including the sweat and organizational talents of its creators, its nicely-calibrated combination of scale and restraint, and the talented pool of Jersey artists that it drew from. The setting helped, too. The Glass Gallery at MANA Contemporary (888 Newark Ave.) is exactly the sort of striking, sunlit, architecturally singular post-industrial space where you’d expect to find a Hudson County arts event happening. MANA’s cooperation with 14C felt like a promising sign: an act of engagement from the sprawling, byzantine, and thoroughly monied studio and storage complex that sometimes feels like part of the local arts scene, and sometimes feels fortified against it. MANA Contemporary’s exhibitions in 2021 were exceptional — on par with those of the major Garden State arts museums, and often a good deal better than comparable shows on the right bank of the Hudson. Nevertheless, the November indictment of Eugene Lemay, MANA’s longtime executive director and most public face, on tax charges sent a shiver through the city, and raised legitimate questions about the institution’s future.

In the PAD, a step forward and a step back

Signs of co-operation, if not outright consolidation, were also visible on the hive-like second floor of 150 Bay Street, where Art House Productions, 14C, the Jersey City Arts Council, and adamantine arts advocacy group ProArts all maintained office space. Floor two was also the main nexus of activity during the weekend of the annual Studio Tour; MANA, by contrast, was only open on Saturday. In March, ProArts launched Art150, a gallery of its own, right in the middle of the floor. It was a feather in the cap of the organization that had more to do with the passage of the Powerhouse Arts District ordinance than any other group. Inaugural Arts150 show “Empowering: A Social Justice Exhibition,” curated by the intellectually formidable Danielle Scott, was thrillingly feisty.

Yet it would be wrong to call Arts150, or even the bustling second floor of 150 Bay, a realization of the ProArts dream. Those who pushed for an Arts District envisioned an egalitarian-minded neighborhood organized around arts activity — one where art would be visible and accessible, and integral to the experience of walking around its blocks. Arts150, handsome as it is, doesn’t front the street, and requires an elevator ride to access; if you’re walking on Bay and you aren’t in the know, you’ll never even realize it’s there.

In 2021, the District did have a space like the ones that ProArts once dreamed about. The distinguishing features of the DVORA Pop-Up Gallery include its giant glass-paneled windows, its pedestrian-friendliness and ease of access, and its wide open doors on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Here was a model example of the District as it had been drawn up, and as it could be: a gallery that featured the work of regional favorites, curated by knowledgeable and experienced veterans of the Jersey City arts scene. Alas, after the calendar turns, the DVORA experiment will draw to a close. The landlord is reclaiming the space for other commercial purposes, and Jim Pustorino and Drawing Rooms will be looking for other digs. Until the new Art House Productions headquarters opens on Morgan Street, it’s likely that Ann Novado will run the sole gallery in the entire Powerhouse Arts District that faces the street. Nearly two decades after the passage of a ballyhooed arts Ordinance, that’s a stunning municipal failure. It’s a stark reminder that, in the absence of oversight and visionary leadership, laws alone cannot make the arts flourish.

The Mural Arts program approaches saturation

The Jersey City murals program has elevated the profiles of some of the area’s extraordinary painters, including the radioactive Clarence Rich, aerosol virtuoso Mr Mustart, and the politically astute Distort. Yet it’s also provided plenty of prime wallspace to out-of-towners whose visions are considerably slicker, and whose logo-like corporate aesthetics clash with the ragged beauty of local streetscapes. Elimination of graffiti is one of the stated objectives of the murals program. But the commercial look of many murals of recent vintage feels like a sanitized overreaction to a non-problem. A decade in, the Mural Arts project has become a mixed bag, with some very good pieces, some awful pieces, and a whole lot of middling stuff rendered in titanic scale on Jersey City walls. And it’s all weathering fast.

“Cat and Spider” by Mr. Mustart

There are now more than two hundred murals in Jersey City. What once felt imaginative is becoming awfully reiterative. Municipally sanctioned street art has begun to acquire its own orthodoxy, and, with it, its own kind of loud and rambunctious predictability. The Jersey City Mural Festival brought scores of institutional muralists to Hudson County for a blowout of painting in the shadow of deejay booths and food trucks.  It was meant to be gonzo — a celebration of the saliency of mural programs to the narrative of modern art in American cities — and through amplification alone, it did achieve that aim. But far too much of the new stuff was a mere restatement of past work: same themes, same images, same palette, same energy. Few arguments were advanced, too little imagination was shown, and it left me wondering if this much-celebrated movement was creatively exhausted.  The Mural Festival re-colored the underside of the Turnpike overpass in June; predictably, in December, it’s already looking shabby. Perhaps we need to take a moment to think about where we’re putting new public artwork, the pace of new production, and how well the paintings we commission are going to stand up to the elements, traffic, and inevitable urban neglect.

A big head on the Hudson

Part of the problem with the murals project is its increasing reliance on monumentalism. Grandeur is intoxicating, and size confers a sick sort of legitimacy on a project among those who aren’t paying close attention. Property developers dabbling in the arts business appreciate hugeness, because size gets headlines, and attention, and it registers an impression on people who wouldn’t otherwise notice a work of art.  Yet in Hudson County, decisionmakers often mistake scale for substance — and we’ve sometimes forgotten that no matter how much of a splash a work of art makes when it’s first shown, it doesn’t mean a thing unless it resonates over time.

Our latest folly is “Water’s Soul,” an eighty (!) foot tall bone-white bust plopped at the end of a public pier in Newport. The statue stares across the Hudson at New York City with one finger raised to its lips, cautioning viewers to silence, or, perhaps, circumspection. Jaume Plensa, the Barcelona artist who created “Water’s Soul,” specializes in the creation of these sleek ultra-white heads, each one with CGI symmetry and a near-inhuman placidity. Plensa’s busts turn on an optical trick: when viewed from an angle, they appear to have the proportions of an ordinary head, but when seen from the front, they’re revealed to be space-alien narrow. Plensa has also contributed work to the dreaded Hudson Yards project, and “Water’s Soul” does indeed have the characteristics we’ve come to associate with art placed in mega-developments. It’s aggressively inoffensive, it strains mightily to be iconic, it’s suggestive of the expenditure of massive amounts of money, and it is far, far bigger than it needs to be.

The placement of the statue (and the artist’s association with Hudson Yards) implies that “Water’s Soul” is meant to exist in dialogue with New York City. In that way, it does represent Newport well. It’s got its back turned to Jersey City, and its message, inasmuch as it bears one, is directed at our neighbors across the river and not at us.  In its absurd size, it broadcasts a desire to be received as part of our skyline. But the crude giantism of “Water’s Soul” is reflective of Jersey City at its worst and most insecure, and our tendency to overcompensate for our position in the shadows of Manhattan with too-big skyscrapers and ugly, hulking waterfront construction of our own. Plensa isn’t even from here, so I’m not sure what his excuse is. If he’d done his research, he’d have learned that the best Jersey City artists never need to shout to be heard.

Pomp(idou) and circumstance

The addition of another art space to Hudson County is always a cause for optimism. The arrival of a branch of an internationally respected museum might occasion a parade. When the Pompidou Center in Paris chose Jersey City for the location of its first satellite location, there was quite a bit of strenuous back-patting in City Hall. It seemed to be a diplomatic coup, and another sign that Hudson County had arrived. Then we took a closer look at the price tag, and blanched.

As the Jersey City Times reported in June, the municipal government will send the Pompidou $6 million annually for the right to host the satellite at the Pathside Building (25 Sip) in Journal Square. Jersey City is also assuming the cost of renovation, which could be as much as $20 million, and daily operations, which will cost several million more. The State of New Jersey is kicking in millions of dollars to make this happen, but that doesn’t change the harsh reality: in effect, Jersey City is paying a world-famous museum to friend us. It’s little wonder that the Pompidou made the choice it did. We’re the only mid-sized city around with self-esteem sufficiently low to accept an arrangement as extortionate as this one.

Centre Pompidou x Jersey City won’t open its doors for years. That ought to give us some time to reflect on what we’ve done here, and figure out why we were so eager to do it. Jersey City is a wealthy town, but our government isn’t: we scrap every year to fund the schools, parks, and city services. Is a massive expenditure on a museum from overseas really a worthwhile investment? We already have everything we need to make ourselves a visual arts destination, including a museum of our own, shuttered and unloved on the corner of Monmouth and Montgomery, waiting to be revived. We’ve got a dedicated, municipally mandated Arts District; we’ve got an Arts and Culture Trust Fund ready to be implemented citywide. We have MANA Contemporary, which, when open to the public, provides an experience not dissimilar to the one at MOMA PS1. We’ve got tremendous homegrown artists who deserve more attention than they get. What we lack is confidence and coordination, and we’re getting better at that. It will be wonderful to have an internationally recognized arts museum within city limits, but purchasing one wasn’t necessary — certainly not at this cost.

The gatekeepers and the referendum

In November 2020, Jersey City voters chose to authorize a tax designed to support local arts.  They did not elect the members of the Jersey City Arts Council to administer that fund. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Council will have more influence over how that money is disbursed than any other organization. The JCAC will select the members of the Grant Review Panel who’ll vet applications from artists and arts organizations. They’ll maintain a designee on the committee that makes the final decisions. The structure of the grants program — which is now municipal law — was defined by the Arts Council along with the Office of Cultural Affairs and other local politicians.

Despite this political centrality, we still don’t know anything definite about the Arts Council’s priorities or tastes — and we won’t know until the city begins giving out grants. Unlike other prominent arts groups who regularly host exhibitions and shows, the track record of the JCAC is thin. The events they’ve overseen haven’t clarified much. Yet the language that the Arts Council has used in its official communications this year about the Fund and the Review Panel is telling, and it doesn’t make me too happy. They’ve consistently mentioned service to the community, public benefits, equality of opportunity, equitable access, education, inclusiveness, and representation from wards in the city that are typically overlooked.

All of these are worthy goals. But they’re secondary to what an Arts Council and an Arts Grants program ought to be aiming for: recognizing and rewarding good art, no matter who makes it, quotas and balance and social utility be damned. It’s that, and nothing else, that we in Jersey City voted for when we voted for an arts fund. We didn’t vote for a redistributive program. We were willing to pay a surcharge to empower our best local artists to make the best art, and nothing but. Given the Council’s closeness to City Hall, it’s worth wondering if the JCAC is an arts organization or a social advocacy group with an arts dimension. Time will tell, and it will tell shortly.

What’s ironic is that there are many people in Jersey City who’ve proven that they’ve got excellent taste. They’ve demonstrated organizational skill and the capacity to be fine arbiters of aesthetic value. I’ve mentioned a few in this article — and those are just the ones working in the visual arts. Nevertheless, it’s the JCAC with profound influence over the most important grantmaking decisions, and with each success story elsewhere in town, that’s starting to feel more and more unfair.

In November, the Arts Council announced that they’d be administering another program under the American Rescue Plan. On top of the municipal arts tax, they’ll be awarding an additional $150,000 in grant money. A press release mentioned nothing about aesthetics. Instead, the Council announced they’d be giving priority to organizations that are developing programming for underserved sections of the city. A politically laudable objective, yes; but it’s not how artists think. A Council that does not evaluate artists on the basis of the quality of their work alone, regardless of their socio-economic status or the perceived privilege of the artists themselves, isn’t helpful to an arts scene. And I must ask, again: of all the people in Jersey City who might have been so elevated, how did the members of the JCAC became the most powerful players in town?

The climate crisis, and the coming challenges of 2022  

Jersey City artists need no prompt from politicians and arts officials to stay engaged. Our public culture is famously argumentative, and a strong moral streak is visible in nearly every quality exhibition that’s mounted in town. Many pre-pandemic shows confronted habitat destruction and ecological collapse, and the trauma of the global health crisis accelerated our all-too-reasonable existential fears. We came back from the quarantine break with more art about the unsustainable carelessness of contemporary life, and some hard looks at the cliff we’re approaching.

Jeff Frost from ‘California on Fire’

Those anxieties whispered from the canvases of Deep Space Gallery all year. Others were more overt about it, particularly the painters and sculptors who display at the underrated University galleries. Beatrice Mady continued to welcome to the Fine Arts Gallery at Saint Peters (47 Glenwood) artists who think hard about the interaction between human beings and the material world they inhabit. This autumn, New Jersey City University (2039 Kennedy) confronted us with a pair of exhibitions that flashed and whirred like warning lights: shows that challenged us to think about the fate of the trash we create as we move through our day. Curators Doris Caciolo and Eileen Ferara expected you to learn something, and maybe even change your wasteful ways — which, given that they were mounted at a school, shouldn’t have been unexpected.

At Art Fair 14C, realist painter Tim Daly showed us images of the evaporating Salton Sea, and Sarah Beckdel used the power of adorableness to elicit sympathy for endangered animals. But for sheer, delightful, terrifying didacticism, nothing compared to “Implied Scale: Confronting The Enormity Of Climate Change,” an exhibit that converted the exhibition galleries on the first floor of MANA Contemporary into a chamber of ecological horrors. MANA gave us a tsunami of junk drawn in black lines on the wall, popping and gurgling sounds from actual melting glaciers, giant ants in mortal combat in a man-made jungle, aerial footage of the Arctic under the heat-lamp of anthropogenic activity, and a jaw-dropping film of the California fires and their ugly aftermath. It was all designed to shake you up, raise consciousness, and encourage sustainable living.

But did it sink in?  We may soon find out.  2021 was the year that a mystified world learned about non-fungible tokens, or NFTs — digital collectibles that exist on the same blockchains that are used for cryptocurrencies. NFTs began selling for eye-popping sums. For visual artists, an avenue to material success appeared to be opening — but at a steep ecological price. Cryptocurrency blockchains are notoriously and spectacularly wasteful, and association with them is incompatible with a commitment to environmental justice.  So far, there hasn’t been much overlap between the NFT marketplace and the Jersey City arts scene. As the technology progresses, and scientists (hopefully) figure out ways to make blockchain activity greener, arts institutions may feel cornered into a reconciliation with NFTs. How much will our homegrown institutions compromise?

That’s one of the bigger questions hovering over the next twelve months, but it’s hardly the only one. Will some of our shuttered art spaces reopen, or will the pinch of a pandemic-driven economic slowdown force some of our favorites to curtail their activities? Will the presence of Art150 spur further gallery growth in the Powerhouse Arts District? Can MANA Contemporary, 14C, and Art House continue to cooperate, or was 2021 a single lightning-strike? Will the rest of the region recognize the artistic strength of what’s happening at MANA, or will it continue to hum along in relative obscurity? How wisely will the Trust Fund levy be distributed? There’s only one way to find out: we’ve got to make it through 2022 together. I’m game if you are. Same time next year, we’ll see how we did.

Always opinionated, and sometimes even correct,

Your pal,

Tris McCall

trismccall@gmail.com

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,...