On some mornings, we bound out of bed. On others — especially if we’ve been under the weather — it takes a while to get going. Perhaps we stretch, perhaps we blather. We may knock a glass off the end table. Though we’re technically up, we may feel we’re still in a dream.
Such was the groggy reawakening of the Jersey City arts scene in 2022. Gallerists, organizers, and appreciators all had plenty to shake off. If our embrace of the social calendar still seems tentative, there’a a good reason for that: the pandemic that shut down the arts hard in 2020 is by no means over. We spent the year looking over our shoulders at an invisible enemy, wondering whether we’d have to pull the drawbridge back up in a hurry.
In the midst of all of this, there was good art — though not, perhaps, art as good as the work exhibited in 2021, when galleries responded to the lockdown with a straightforward roar of protest against the universe. While 2022 was full of equestrian portraits of various horsemen of the apocalypse, our embrace of armageddon was tentative: isn’t this supposed to be over? Weren’t we going to put aside our cares and cut loose? Also, didn’t Prince tell us that 1999-type times were the optimal times to party?
The result was a confused year of half-measures and self-imposed curfews, hovering trepidation, and a pervasive cloud of worry that even the sunniest days of summer couldn’t dispel. Jersey City shivered with post-traumatic stress, amplified by our realization that the cause of that anxiety hadn’t gone anywhere. Existential fears fed into more quotidian concerns about the economic slowdown, funding cuts, and financial hardship: at times, 2022 felt like a nonstop scramble for money. Almost all the arts organizations, and, by extension, the artists they supported, were on the ropes at one time or another in 2022, fretting about rents and rising casts, and wondering how to keep the lights on. The loudest sound coming from the arts scene was the rattle of the shaking can.
Yet, on balance, we persevered gracefully. Because the pathogen showed up on these shores as early as it did — before we had a transmission model or treatment plan — our city has had an unusually horrific pandemic experience. We incurred psychological damage that other places in America didn’t. We were on the bleeding edge of a global disaster, staring into an abyss, and we’re still standing, still painting and sculpting and performing, still responding to our own feelings of destabilization by making connections through art and personal expression. Maybe hardship really does lead to wisdom. Maybe we’re just Jersey stubborn.
INDIE COMINGS AND GOINGS
Small art spaces nationwide were pulverized by the pandemic. Endangered though they are, little galleries remain the soul of any arts scene. Without them, there’d be no interface between the business of art and the communities where artists and their appreciators live. After the initial shutdowns, it seemed as if Jersey City had lost some of its galleries for good. Thus, some of our best developments of 2022 were pure comeback stories: Casa Colombo reopened in the spring and exhibited excellent work all year, Eonta Space rounded up the local troublemakers for a warm, collegial reunion show, and Curious Matter returned from a period of relative inactivity with the poised, quietly gorgeous “Where Is Here.” Drawing Rooms was among the very last of the galleries to close in spring 2020. They used the time off to remodel their presentation space at the Tops Industrial Building, and they got back in the game with a winning hand in time for the Studio Tour.
Yet the DVORA Pop-up Gallery, the PAD space booked by the curators at Drawing Rooms, closed up at the beginning of the year at the insistence of the developer who owned the building. It looked for awhile like a similar fate awaited the cash-strapped SMUSH — until enamored donors saved the beloved, beleaguered multimedia space in McGinley Square. Outlander Gallery quit Monticello Avenue in disgust at the state of the block, briefly relocated to Journal Square, and then vanished altogether. There’s been nothing new from PRIME Gallery since January; should that space revert to its original existence as a real estate office, it’d leave the Heights without an independent gallery for the first time in recent memory.
Even in the chill, a few new flowers bloomed. Atim Oton, curator at the Calabar Gallery in Harlem, inaugurated a promising series of shows in a multi-purpose room behind the leasing office at the Beacon. Ivy Serioglu converted the floor above the Rumi Turkish restaurant in Paulus Hook into IMUR, a pretty jewel box of a gallery with an emphasis on international art uncommon in Hudson County. Painter and sculptor Thomas Banks converted the front window of McGinley Park cafe Crema into a wild playland. These were all unconventional spaces for art, but the resourcefulness of the showrunners added to the charm of the shows. If these weren’t quite the desperate measures that desperate times call for, they did feel like creative adaptations of a scene coping with profound misfortune.
TROUBLE IN THE WORKS
Meanwhile, our flagship indie art spaces had strong years, and remained the pillars of the scene. Novado Gallery got off to a slow start in ’22 — blame Hollywood interference for that, since the letter-perfect, brick-walled room was booked by a film company to serve as a setting for a movie. But by the end of the 2022, the gallery was roaring, presenting a series of delightful shows that showcased Anne Novado’s unerring sense of the beautiful and luminous. Ten minutes south, in a much lower-rent part of town, Deep Space continued to prove itself to be the exemplary Garden State gallery, booking fearless, humorous, frequently dazzling shows that brought street art to the community, and the community to the streets.
Our larger institutions weren’t quite so fleet-footed. As work on its latest location dragged on without an end in sight, the city’s longest-running arts organization spent 2022 without a home. Art House Productions opened its promising ground floor gallery for the Studio Tour and again for the year-end Affordable Arts Show; elsewhere in the Hendrix tower, construction continues. A block east at 150 Bay Street, ART150 and ProArts mounted quality shows despite an incredible shrinking exhibition space and a rent hike that drove many good artists out of the building. Even City Hall curtailed its fine series of shows at the Meagher Rotunda so that the rebuilders could buff the place up. At times in frustrating old ’22, it felt reasonable to ask: when will all the renovations stop, and when do we finally get to be the thing we’re trying so hard to become?
And then there was MANA Contemporary. The hulking arts fortress in the warehouse complex at the western end of Newark Avenue took some major steps forward in 2022, installing an ambitious and far-sighted new director, improving signage inside the facility, and working with the Kaminsky and Monira Foundations to improve their offerings and their public profile. Communications were better, and “Land of the Free,” MANA’s major ground-floor show, compared favorably to those at other Garden State arts centers and even the famous institutions on the other side of the Hudson. Unfortunately, MANA ended its policy of free Saturdays for wanderers, limiting access to the building to open houses and tours that had to be scheduled in advance. Presently the institution looks and feels like a museum, and shows museum-quality work, but still can’t be treated like a museum by visitors. More than a decade after opening, MANA is still trying to figure out what the heck it is.
GROWTH AND OVERGROWTH
In fall 2021, MANA signaled its intention to be a good big brother to the Jersey City arts scene by hosting the Art Fair 14C, the town’s largest visual arts event, at its Glass Gallery on Senate Place. With its slat-like windows and industrial architecture, the building fit the event, and Jersey City arts, perfectly. Fair crowds spilled over into the main MANA building, and visitors discovered the campus and its amazing collection. Here was a perfect arrangement for everybody — the arts center located an easy way to partner with the arts scene without diluting the integrity of its high-quality brand, co-producers Art House Productions applied their own formidable organizational talents to the biggest show around, and 14C seemed to have found a permanent home.
It did not hold. The grand coalition between Art House Productions, MANA and 14C barely outlasted the cheering. Fair founder and director Robinson Holloway split with Art House; curator Kristin DeAngelis, the organizer of the outstanding 2021 14C juried show, took on the Augean task of community relations at MANA Contemporary. Then renovations (what else?) rendered the Glass Gallery unavailable for a repeat engagement. Holloway brought the show to the Jersey City Armory, the massive pre-war structure at the top of the hill in McGinley Square. It was certainly large enough to accommodate her ambitions: the biggest Art Fair yet, one with 150 exhibitors and an international scope. Nevertheless, it was still a sporting arena — complete with indoor bleacher seating, parquet floors, and a basketball scoreboard overhead. Just as it’s always a little disappointing when an independent band graduates from the theater circuit and begins staging concerts in the Prudential Center, it hurt to move Art Fair 14C from the stylish environs of an arts complex on Senate Street to a supersized gymnasium.
Not content with expanding 14C, Holloway was also one of the principal movers behind the establishment of the Downtown Art Crawl, a recurring open studio event that knitted together several arts complexes and galleries, and threw in restaurant and business discounts for good measure. The Crawls were tight, economical, convivial, and above all, digestible, and though it was probably not Holloway’s intention to do so, they stole a few claps of thunder from the Jersey City Art and Studio Tour.
Mostly, they reminded us of what JCAST used to be like before organizers decided that it needed to cover every corner of the City. Walking from Grove Street to Greenville is onerous under ideal conditions. In the tropical downpours that saturated the 2022 Studio Tour, it was impossible. If you need a jitney — or, worse, a private car — to experience an open studio event, it’s not really a Tour in the sense that its original designers intended. JCAST22 was the largest iteration of the annual festival in history, but size is no guarantor of quality, and it often stands squarely in the way of coherence. There was plenty of great work to be found on the Tour, but this year’s sprawling edition of JCAST felt like a loose amalgamation of unrelated events, especially in neighborhoods far from the two major hubs of activity. Like an ever-expanding galaxy, the distance between the stars is getting pretty icy. It’s probably time to rethink the way we do this, and for us to begin to privilege quality, and concentration of experience, over sheer mass of happenstance.
GO FUND ME
The continuing expansion of the studio tour is another example of one of local arts organizers’ biggest self-imposed obstacles: the need to involve all six wards in local projects that aren’t regionally specific and that don’t affect all parts of the city evenly. The freshly minted Arts and Culture Trust Fund, too, relied on a committee comprised of Ward representatives, just as if it was a political initiative — which in many ways it is. Nearly a million dollars of grant money was distributed through the Fund this year. When the smoke cleared and grants were announced, that diverse group of deliberators arrived at very conventional decisions. Some of the largest and biggest-budgeted organizations in the city, many headquartered in the heart of the redeveloped Downtown, ended up with the bags with the dollar signs on them.
Mainstream performing arts organizations catering to older audiences were the Fund’s most notable beneficiaries. By contrast, many of the smaller spaces that drive arts innovation in Jersey City weren’t fully funded. Some weren’t funded at all. The rock scene, in particular, was almost entirely bypassed by the Fund. Instead of oddballs getting money from a benevolent group of renegades representing underappreciated precincts of the city, the heftier awards went, disproportionately, to established groups that had already gotten grant money from other sources — organizations experienced in the tricky art of approaching grantmakers. A few of these, like Ariel Rivka Dance, recipients of a maximum award, have been more active in New York than they have been here on the humbler side of the Hudson.
This was not how the Arts and Culture Trust Fund was sold to the city. This was supposed to be a Fund to benefit artists of all kinds, not a transfer of wealth from artists (and other taxpayers) to well connected arts organizations working in specific state-sanctioned mediums. In a year where property taxes spiked across the city to pay for budget shortfalls, that’s a tough expense to justify. Fiscal mismanagement is a far bigger threat to a local arts scene than lack of direct funding — especially when that funding comes straight from the public purse. The Arts and Culture Trust Fund isn’t money from nowhere. It’s a levy paid for by city taxpayers, many of whom have their own independent projects they’d like to be able to afford to finance. Doing that got harder in Jersey City in 2022. Unless you were among the fortunate ones, the Arts and Culture Trust Fund didn’t help.
CHECK THE ELEVATION
Hamilton Park is at least eight blocks away from the Powerhouse Arts District. Yet it was on Erie Street that the communal spirit of the PAD was best realized in 2022. The Elevator complex shows signs of being the rarest thing in contemporary arts: a genuine incubator in which artists benefit from the presence of their neighbors, make connections, collaborate, and share their experiments with the public. The multi-story studio space was a long time in the making, and it required contributions from many locals, credited and uncredited, before its launch. But once it was in motion, it achieved enviable momentum, and quickly became a cornerstone of the Downtown Art Crawl and home base for some of the most intriguing artists and art projects in town, a more approachable version of MANA Contemporary, a less fractious 150 Bay.
This alchemy probably wouldn’t have happened without the presence of sculptor and painter Shamona Stokes, pinched from the basement of MANA and placed in charge of community-building at Elevator JC. Stokes turned out to be the rare introvert with the proper temperament for networking. She demonstrated a knack for low-key publicity, and some real skill at eliciting cooperation between artists with complicated personalities. So well did Stokes fit the role that it was sometimes easy to forget that she’s got a singular vision of her own to express. “Drink the Sun,” a twisted little fairytale made in collaboration with Deep Space, Rebecca N. Johnson, and designer Deming King Harriman, was a forceful reminder of how much antimatter she can handle, and how well she plays with others.
Stokes and the Deep Space duo of Keith Van Pelt and Jenna Geiger will continue their curatorial project in the wainscoted atrium the Majestic Theater Condominiums and the ground floor of the Hamilton Park Condominiums, a double role vacated by Kristin DeAngelis upon her move to MANA. For years, DeAngelis made the lobbies of those buildings feel like galleries — an accomplishment in interior design as well as a marvel of adaptive art exhibition. The Majestic and Hamilton Park are both owned by Silverman, a development company with deep roots in Jersey City and a sense of aesthetics rare among builders. Silverman owns Elevator, too. But before we heap too much praise on them, it’s worth pointing out that Silverman is also the developer at the Hendrix, the tower that continues to make Art House Productions sweat. Our arts scene continues to be worryingly dependent on the schedules, the budgets, and the whims of real estate companies.
FROM JERSEY CITY TO THE STARS
Art is not a competition. Let’s just say that when Stokes, Johnson, Harriman and Deep Space brought “Drink the Sun” to the SPRING/BREAK Art Fair in New York City this year, our local artists held their own and then some. Sometimes it’s necessary to encounter Jersey City artists in spaces far from home in order to put their achievements in perspective. There are so many talented painters, sculptors, and photographers working here that we’ve come to take excellence for granted. Our visual arts community maintains such a high level of quality that when our stars go out of town, they’re always among the best in show.
That was true at the State Museum in Trenton, where Jersey City artists starred in the annual summary exhibition. It was true at a thrilling pandemic-themed show in the wilds of Watchung dominated by members of ProArts. Danielle Scott took her golden-haloed visions to Downtown Newark, Heather Williams tore it up in Bayonne, Theda Sandiford parked her emotional baggage carts at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, Michelle “Woolpunk” Vitale thread-bombed the walls of the Montclair Museum, Guillermo Bublik brought his impeccable sense of balance to Millburn and Morris County, Katelyn Halpern executed a neat synthesis of dance and conceptual art onstage at NJPAC . There’s tremendous talent here, even if the world outside Jersey City has been slow to recognize it. Self-promotion isn’t our thing. We’re more into brutal honesty. In the age of the infinitely retouched selfie, that’s to our credit. We need a better, more reliable political and organization superstructure to support us, and we need to publicize our best work. I’ll keep on doing what I can, and I’ll see you back here next year.
With love from Fourth Street between Monmouth and Coles,