Onstage at White Eagle Hall, a woman read a poem beside a flock of white birds. The birds were statuettes: pigeon-sized trophies given to the winners of the 2022 Jersey City Arts Awards. The woman was Professor Ann Wallace of the English Department at NJCU, cancer survivor and long COVID sufferer, and the newest Jersey City poet laureate.  The professor’s benediction in verse, which came at the beginning of a Wednesday night awards ceremony that felt almost apologetically brief, praised the generosity of Jersey City people, but also came with a caveat. Life in the city is intrinsically hard, Wallace’s poem said, and our famous fractiousness does not make it any easier.

At their best, the Arts Awards, bestowed and presented by the Jersey City Arts Council, are an attempt to bridge those divisions. The Council enjoys shining a light on members of the arts community whose work is dedicated to acts of healing. They honor upright citizens: creator-activists who use their platforms to educate, unify, and spread positivity. This was again the case on Wednesday, when the Arts Council distributed the little bird statues to a roster of nice guys and nice girls, including Winard Harper, the great jazz evangelist of Monticello Avenue, John Ruddy, the late fireman-painter who was a wonderfully welcoming presence on the arts scene for many years, and the genial Bryant Small, talented painter in alcohol ink and co-president of the advocacy organization ProArts.

The white bird was not Bryant Small’s only recent windfall. Earlier this year, the Arts and Culture Trust Fund bestowed upon Small its maximum individual grant. Art Fair 14C, the rapidly expanding annual exposition, received $18,750 from the Trust Fund and a Jersey City Arts Award, too. The Jersey City Arts School took the JCAA Education Award; the Trust Fund saw fit to give the school more than four thousand dollars. Jersey City Writers, winners of last year’s Literary Award, was granted a little over six thousand dollars.

These are all worthy organizations. But in a town where conflict of interest is all too regularly shrugged off as part of the cost of doing business, it simply has to be asked: should the same group that was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Arts and Culture Trust Fund really be handing out the town’s Arts Awards?  Isn’t this courting the kind of insularity and cliquishness — and resentment from the many left out of the hierarchy — that our new poet laureate was shrewdly warning against?

The line between the Fund and the JCAC is a blurry one. But at White Eagle Hall, the Arts Council aggressively played up its association with the municipal government and its art tax. In his opening address, Council director MacAdam Smith mentioned the Arts and Culture Trust Fund eight times before he even told the crowd his name. Arts Council presenters spoke of their awardees in the kind of patronizing language that local politicians regularly use to demonstrate their support for creative endeavors. Awardees were lauded for their organizational work, bridge-building, selflessness, and commitment to the community. The truest art of Young Artist Award winner Sunjay Bahadur, we were told by a presenter, was enabling the arts of others. We were assured that memoirist Anisa Rahim, this year’s Literary Award Winner, has a background as a public interest attorney. Smith even encouraged attendees to the event to fill out a survey (with a Make It Yours pen!) attesting to the centrality of the arts to economic development. 

What did the Arts Award winners have to say about all this?  Precious little — and that was by design.  In an act of astounding insecurity and self-sabotage, the Jersey City Arts Council limited acceptance speeches to ten words. (JCAC presenters observed no such limitation; brevity is not their preferred mode.)  This inelegant act of discursive constriction effectively shut the artists out of their own ceremony.  It was deeply telling that the Arts Council chose awardees who were willing to humor their bizarre restriction. Winners were expected to smile for the camera, absorb praise from authorities, speak only when called upon, and get off stage with their bird as quickly as possible, and with very few exceptions, that’s exactly what they did. Presenters demonstrated no curiosity about the men and women they were honoring. The tacit assumption was that all of these people were already friends and associates, part of the same network, and thus interaction was unnecessary. Here were the arts, and artists, as the establishment would like to see them: upstanding, polite, circumscribed, and controlled.

This need for obsessive oversight might help explain why the Jersey City Arts Council did not see fit to honor any local bands or hip-hop crews, or, for that matter, any of the organizers of the many sensational visual art shows that made following the arts in Jersey City such a rewarding thing to do in 2022. Punk rockers and rappers don’t like being told what to say. Neither do good curators. The JCAC’s omissions felt out of touch with the arts as they’re experienced by people who attend events in Jersey City, but it was in firm alignment with the priorities of the Arts and Culture Trust Fund, which underfunded independent galleries and skipped over rock bands and rap crews completely.  It was almost as if the Fund administrators and the JCAC shared a point of view, and an objective, and, perhaps, the same names.

It is impossible to write about this event without mentioning the cost of a ticket: $90-$120.  For that price, attendees were rewarded with an open bar, food in catering trays from a few fine Jersey City restaurants, a performance by the skillful jazz band Conundrum, poems by the outgoing and incoming laureates, and a speedy ceremony in which the awardees were barely allowed to speak.  It should go without saying that this exorbitant cover was prohibitive for the many who crowd into Pet Shop for pop-rock shows, and probably too costly for those who regularly attend concerts by national touring acts at White Eagle Hall as well. That left those who got into the Arts Awards through a personal connection to the Council or one of their artists, and those who treated the event as something akin to a fundraiser for the organization. Yes, politicians do such things all the time. That’s exactly the problem.  

Featured work: “Archetype” by John Ruddy 

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,...