JCT sat down with Robinson Holloway, founder of the Art Fair 14C and a co-founder of the Jersey City Arts Council to discuss a referendum on the November 3rd ballot that would impose a yearly “Municipal Art and Culture Levy” of up to “$0.02 per $100 of assessed valuation” on Jersey City property owners.
Joining Robinson on the Committee in support of this referendum is a veritable who’s who of the Jersey City arts community including: Meredith Burns (Art House Productions), Thomas Carlson (Jersey City Arts School), Beth Cope (JCTC), Stephanie Daniels (JC Office of Film & TV), Diane Dragone (Kennedy Dancers), Susan Justiniano (Rescue Poetix), Olga Levina (JCTC, White Eagle Hall), Kyle Marshall (Kyle Marshall Choreography), Martin Pierce (historian), Samuel Pott (Nimbus Dance Works), Rachel Poy (JC Writers), MacAdam Smith (JCAC), Heather Wahl (Speranza Theatre Company), Courtney Little (Art House Productions) and Crystal Davis (OpenRoad Poetry/Crystal Letters).
Additional FAQs and information on the referendum can be found at https://jcaf.squarespace.com/
JCT: So Robinson, tell me a little bit about your background in the arts specifically.
Holloway: I actually came to the arts fairly late in my career, although I’ve always had a passion for the arts. I was a sports writer and worked in sports television for 20 years. But when I was living in Greenwich Village, I started a nonprofit art gallery there. And then when we moved to Jersey City seven and a half years ago, my husband and I, we started another nonprofit gallery in the ground floor of the building called Village West. I started getting involved in the community here and I’m a joiner. So I started getting involved in things and I was fortunate enough to be the first chair of the Jersey City Arts Council, which was formed almost four years ago.
JCT: And what exactly, for those who don’t know, does the Jersey City Arts Council do?
Holloway: The Jersey City Arts Council was created four years ago. It had been a long time coming actually. As you know, the arts are abundant in Jersey City. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of artists and there are dozens of arts organizations, large and small, mostly small, a lot of them grassroots. But there wasn’t a single body to advocate for them and to help connect them and give the arts community a more unified voice. And one of the things that we felt was important, actually, one of the founding principles of the Arts Council was that the arts, although it has a market capitalism element to it, you can buy a book, buy a ticket to the theater, buy a painting… the arts has never worked purely on market capitalism. There always has to be community support, philanthropic support, civic support, for the arts to thrive. And this was something that we felt was missing in Jersey City. And so the Arts Council pretty early made it obvious to the city that we needed that community and civic support.
JCT: In brief, what is the arts referendum about? What does it provide for, what will it accomplish and how much will it cost the taxpayers?
Holloway: Okay. Let me give you a little of the referendum first. As I said it was part of our mission for the Arts Council to advocate for civic support for the arts. So I went with Heather Warfel Sandler, who is the current chair of the Jersey City Arts Council, to meet with Mayor Fulop to ask — actually at the time we wanted to ask for a small percentage of the budget 0.0025% of the budget to be exact — to be allocated to the arts that the Arts Council would help distribute. He turned us down for several good reasons. One of which, the most important of which, was that even if he did put it into the budget in a percentage, which would be an unprecedented way to deal with the budget, there there was no guarantee that the next mayor wouldn’t take it out or that there might be a budget shortfall.
And as we know, the arts tends to go overboard the first time there’s tight times. So we actually, he, he therefore was, was very supportive of there being something to support the arts. He knew how important the arts community was in Jersey City and he is totally behind supporting it. So we discussed taxes. The problem is Jersey City can’t do its own taxes. So I would say within two weeks of the meeting with Mayor Fulop, he had gathered our state representatives together and we hashed out a bill that would allow any municipality in New Jersey to ask its citizens for a levy for the arts. So it’s not a tax that’s being imposed from on high. We are asking the citizens, and this is open to any municipality, but Jersey City is the first one to do it. The governor just signed it in January. And in February, our City Council unanimously put it on the ballot.
It’s not intended to pay everybody’s bills. It’s a small tax it’s intended to help stabilize the arts and help nurture the arts and help support the arts. The way it works in New Jersey, the State Council on the Arts distributes about $16 million to the arts. Of that 16 million, Hudson County only gets about $150,000. So even though we are a very arts rich, and in many ways a rich county, we get a tiny fraction of the arts support. So part of why we want to do this on our own was not only to bring more money into the arts and help stabilize them, but clearly the formula that the state uses, and it’s a very accepted grant-making formula, doesn’t entirely translate to the way the arts are in Jersey City.
So this referendum was to in part address that and to make sure that we could have a stable home for the arts here. But as I said, it’s not supposed to pay everybody’s bills. It’s not millions of dollars. Most homeowners will be paying a 25 to $50 tax per year for the arts. And that is based on the likely levy of half a penny per a hundred dollars. The referendum, if you read, it says it can go up to 2 cents. That’s modeled on the open space referendum, same thing. They can go up to 2 cents. They haven’t done it. They’re at about half a penny. So that’s, that’s what we’re aiming for.
JCT: Who decides whether it’s a 0.50 cents or two cents?
Holloway: The City Council will, and they can’t do it yet because the referendum hasn’t passed. But I’ve had many conversations with members of the City Council and half a penny seems to be what everybody agrees on. The arts community is good with that amount. The City Council seems to be good with that amount. And the mayor seems to be good with that amount. It is roughly what the open space trust is. So yes, we could go to two pennies, but I don’t see that being even remotely conceivable in the next few years.
JCT: So let’s say I own a home that is valued at $500,000.
Holloway: You would be paying $25 a year.
JCT: And I assume renters are not getting hit?
Holloway: Renters, this is a freebie for them, for the most part. I mean, if you live in an apartment your landlord could pass that $25 on to you, but it’s such a small tax. We don’t feel like it will be a major hit for renters. But yeah, the way things are done in New Jersey is a huge reliance on property tax, whether that is right or wrong. It’s not really in my scope at this moment, but that is the way it’s done.
JCT: Let me ask you this. So right now Jersey City is allocated about $150,000 from this statewide arts fund.
Holloway: It’s not Jersey City, it’s Hudson County that gets it. I mean, most of the things in the arts are in Jersey City. And it is not for Jersey City or even Hudson County to just arbitrarily distribute. There are grants. So you have to actually be an established arts organization, like Art House Productions, the Kennedy Dancers. You apply and then you can get a grant.
JCT: So the Hudson County fund is through grants, it’s not being just handed out willy nilly at art openings. There’s a process.
Holloway: Yes. And there would be a process for the taxpayer money that was put into the trust through the referendum.
JCT: How much do you anticipate this levy raising? If it is indeed at 0.50 cents per hundred dollars?
Holloway: From what I understand, it would be about $800,000 a year, which is nice. I mean it’s 800,000 more than we have now and have had in the past. And it’s not compared to say Newark, which Mayor Ras Baraka has committed to the next three years, giving a million dollars to the arts without a referendum. They’re just doing it through their budget. You know, so we’re, we’re still behind Newark, but it’s the sort of thing that will allow the arts, especially in these tough times to survive. But as I said, it won’t pay everybody’s bills and it’s not an enormous amount of money. We have a $658 million budget in Jersey City. So $800,000 for the arts is tiny. Yeah, there have been people who were worried because they did change the language of the bill over the two and a half years it took to get it passed that does allow the money to not be spent on the arts if Jersey City is officially recognized as being in fiscal distress. And that is something that would have to be petitioned for in Trenton. And there are people who are worried that suddenly it will be used to pay for fire trucks or things like that. That’s such a radical thing for us to be officially designated a city in fiscal distress that it won’t be because suddenly they want to steal $800,000 from the arts. And so it’s such a radical thing that it’s a tiny percentage chance. And if that happens, we’ve got more to worry about than the money for the arts.
JCT: So next question, which I think is something that’s on a lot of people’s minds is what is the process for deciding who gets a grant? I assume it’s a grant… from this pot of money, this $800,000. What is the process? What are the qualifications one needs? What are the artistic and aesthetic considerations?
Holloway: So this is a question I wish I could answer definitively. For one thing I will tell you, it’s been talked about a lot and it’s been thought about a lot, but until the referendum passes, the mechanism can’t actually be set up. So it hasn’t actually happened. But the start will be that a committee will be set up. The mayor will appoint someone to this committee and each member of the City Council will appoint someone to this committee and the arts community will have a representative through the Jersey City Arts Council. So will be a set up somewhat similar to the Open Space Trust Fund committee, they are set up in a similar fashion. So there will be citywide, geographic, and one hopes in all ways, diverse representation on this board. Then those people will make the policy.
As I said, I assume they will really look into what already exists in the arts grant-making world. And basically the arts exist in a grant-making world. So there is plenty of precedent around. But as I said, Jersey City’s arts community doesn’t always fit the established grant-making world. Whereas it’s very easy to take something like Nimbus Dance who has an incredible track record, has a theater now, has programming that’s established. They ask for a grant, you pretty much know how they’re going to spend it. And you know that they will account for it. They are really easy to give a grant to. There are other things that are trickier. So you know we do want to make sure that small grassroots groups are nurtured and can grow. And the real question is actually individual artists because who decides who’s an artist? There is an artist certification board that the city has, so that may come into it, but we’re talking about taxpayer money and it can be tricky.
We’ve had conversations with City Council people who are a little concerned about giving to individual artists. However, that is a lot of what Jersey City is. So I think there will be quite a few discussions back and forth, but I can tell you as a member of the arts community, whether I’m on this committee or not, it will be of huge importance to me that these grants are done in a transparent and equitable way. And I know that everybody else in the community feels the same way. So we will be making sure whoever ends up on this committee, the arts community will be represented. And people in this community have a lot of knowledge about the arts in Jersey City and how it works and how granting works. So I’m reasonably confident that, especially as the years go on, it will be something that will make a real demonstrable, marked difference in the city. I think that people will actually really be able to see this seed money and how it can make the arts thrive and how it can make Jersey City thrive. But unfortunately I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to be spent.
Earlier this summer the Jersey City Arts Fund Committee made grant guidelines recommendations to the Arts Council and members of the City Council, and after the election the council will release their own draft of guidelines and plan, which will then be discussed in an open community meeting before being adopted.
JCT: I assume that that’s kind of the most detailed you can get on this. Are there any requirements in terms of the people that would be chosen by the council-people and by the mayor in terms of their qualifications or is that also still to be…
Holloway: That would be up to them. I would imagine that say Denise Ridley would want somebody with some sort of expertise who is from Ward A. But I can’t go into her thinking. I assume the same for Jermaine Robinson, he would want somebody with either grant-making or administrative or arts expertise or just even expertise in dealing with civic money, from Ward F. But they can literally pick anyone.
JCT: Let me ask you another question, which is that for some people, I think they are going to say look, the arts is a fairly, somewhat elite group of people that don’t have to punch a clock necessarily and go in and do jobs that most people do. It’s sort of a rarefied group of people who have more freedom than other people. And if people of means want to support the arts, they should by all means do so. But why should the support of the arts be put on the backs of working people when there’s plenty of money among wealthier Jersey City residents to give on their own and support it on their own?
Holloway: I do think the arts has this reputation in some ways but you know, we’re not opera here. We’re not the Metropolitan Opera. Jersey City actually is filled with…we have arts businesses that really are small businesses the way that a restaurant is a small business or a shoe shop is a small business. It just happens to be maybe more of a fun business, more of a creative business. But the arts is throughout this city. And if we keep it in the elites and if we only support what the rich people want then how does that help somebody who wants to be a dancer in Greenville? How does that help somebody from the Heights who isn’t born into wealth who wants to be a sculptor? I think that the entire city needs to do this and it’s not just to give some painter at Mana a $10,000 grant. We’re not going to be doing that.
One of the things we really want to do is focus on arts education focused on the whole city. That’s actually the point of making it this way. Let’s take what I said before. Nimbus has a very shiny new theater. It will be a pleasure once we can go in there and support them and go and attend their things. And I’m sure a lot of the wealthier Jersey City people will, but that doesn’t help the whole city. I think it has to be more than just what we pick and choose. When you just leave it to the market and you just leave it to the wealthy, you get Hamilton succeeding hugely. But Hamilton might not have existed except for the Public Theater. It started in the Public Theater. So it is, I think, absolutely essential that this be something that the city is invested in because the arts are invested in the city and the arts touch all parts of the city, all neighborhoods, all levels. All ethnicities are affected by the arts and should have the chance to have access to art.
Photo: Kyle Marshal Choreography, Roam (2016). Performers: Derek Crescenti, Miriam Gabriel,Monica Gonzalez, Kyle Marshall and Myssi Robinson. Photo by David Gonsier