Through its State Council on the Arts, New Jersey has granted $677,818 to Hudson County arts organizations for operations in the fiscal year of 2024.

To a working artist in Jersey City, that probably sounds like a hefty purse. But it’s only a little more than two percent of the public money that’ll be granted by the Council this year. Our neighbors in Essex County will get more than eight million dollars from Trenton. The Paper Mill Playhouse, a regional theater in suburban Millburn, received more money than all Hudson County arts organizations put together. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, recipient of a whopping $1.4 million grant, has netted more than twice our total prize.

The imbalance doesn’t stop at the Essex County line. Organizations in Mercer County — home to the state capital — will receive more than four times the money than we will.  This includes a grant of approximately a million dollars to the McCarter Theater in Princeton, located across the street from one of the most elite and expensive educational institutions in the world. 

This is, plainly, not a redistributive effort. The list of grantees is a roll call of the largest and best-connected arts organizations in the state, including the Morris Museum in Morristown (an affiliate of the Smithsonian), the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, the State Theater in New Brunswick, Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, the Montclair Museum, and the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center. Within Hudson County, all but one of the nine recipients of public money is headquartered in rapidly redeveloping Jersey City. 

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of New Jersey arts knows that Hudson County contributes far more than two per cent to the cultural profile of the state. Jersey City is, inarguably, a site of visual arts excellence and a magnet for painters, sculptors, and photographers. We’re emerging as an experimental dance powerhouse, too — something acknowledged by the State Council through its awards to Nimbus ($65K) and the Kennedy Dancers ($48K). Hudson County has long been a destination for touring bands, and over the past few years, we’ve welcomed installation artists and multidisciplinary dream-makers doing work as ambitious as anything I’ve experienced on the other side of the Hudson.

What we lack is large arts nonprofits: museums, performing arts centers, thousand-seat theaters with chief financial officers, dedicated grant writers, and bankers on their boards. Those big institutions may indeed require substantive infusions of operating money to stay afloat. But is that our fault? Should we be punished for our independence and our lightness on our feet? If Hudson County arts organizations do better, more courageous, and more challenging work on a shoestring budget than the big boys do, that’s something to be celebrated and funded appropriately. A fair Arts Council — not to mention one with good taste — would reward us for our initiative and our imagination.

Public funding for the arts is sold to voters as a small levy put in place on behalf of the little guy.  New Jersey people aren’t philistines: given the opportunity to redirect state funds to struggling but talented creators, they’ll usually take it. But in practice, that’s not how arts funds ever work. The money goes to large operations — and the larger the operation, the more money they seem to need, and get. Young cities like ours filled with innovators doing challenging work are never served the tastiest slices of the pie. Instead, arts levies become another transfer of money from the cities to the suburbs (and a few urban operations that cater to visitors from the suburbs). Grants becomes the de facto property of a cadre of established institutions with diminished incentive to shake up what they’re doing. This is something for our own Arts and Culture Trust Fund to consider. Lest we repeat the mistakes of Trenton on a smaller scale, we need to move that public money around better than we have so far. 

The State of New Jersey is contributing many millions of dollars to the Pompidou project. I hope that this massive state expenditure — one that has nothing to do with the State Council — has not been considered part of our allotment of arts aid by anyone in Trenton. Assisting a Parisian museum in its overseas expansion plans doesn’t have much to do with working artists and arts organizations in Hudson County. Whether any of that state money will lead to opportunities for creators is a wide open question that won’t be answered for years. In summer ’23, the Jersey City Pompidou is mostly imaginary. For all the fuss made about the museum by City Hall and Trenton, there’s been no meaningful action yet in Journal Square.

It is deeply telling that the largest grant given to a Hudson County organization by the Arts Council — bigger than those to Art House Productions ($57.5K) and Ember Choral Arts ($41.3K) — went to the County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs Local Arts Program. The County Arts Office got more money ($335K) than the rest of our recipients put together. This is a way of passing the buck: the county LAP will, in turn bestow that money upon area worthies. That Office is staffed by local artists, and I’ve got every confidence that they’ll redistribute that grant money wisely. But that’s beside the point. The State Council is conceding that this is foreign territory to them. They’re familiar the Essex, Middlesex, and Mercer County institutions with ex-governors as emeritus trustees; they’re not aware of what goes down on the Hudson. If they want us to take them seriously as arbiters of artistic value — not to mention honest bureaucrats — they should get to know us better. Because this place is where it’s happening. 

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,...