A European star was coming to Jersey City. Rem Koolhaas, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and one of Time Magazine’s 2008 picks for the world’s most influential people, announced his intention to build a fifty story tower on the lot that was once home to the Arts Center at 111 First Street. Architecture News wrote that Koolhaas’s interest in Jersey City had raised our profile. Other publications were no less laudatory. Here was balm for a city still bruised by the fight over the Arts Center: Even if the community there had been scattered and a historic building lost to us, we could console ourselves with the thought that there’d soon be an anchor for our skyline, designed by an architectural celebrity.  A Koolhaas building might attract other builders and stimulate investment. It augured our arrival as a destination. 

That was 2006. A decade and a half later, there’s nothing on that lot but pallets of bricks.  The tower never materialized. Instead, we were left with another reminder that big names often deliver nothing but big disappointment.

Jersey City did not need Koolhaas to redevelop. Change and growth have come at staggering speed. Journal Square is presently the site of some of the most intense property speculation in the Garden State, and City Hall expects another famous European import to drive interest to the neighborhood. As has been reported on Jersey City Times and elsewhere, the city — that’s you and me, mind you — will spend tens of millions of dollars to renovate the Pathside Building on behalf of the Paris-based modern art museum Centre Pompidou. On top of that, Jersey City will pay Pompidou a multi-million dollar annual fee for the right to serve as the museum’s American outpost. Not so coincidentally, this deal was brokered by OMA, the international architectural firm founded by Rem Koolhaas. 
That’s a rough expenditure to justify. As property owners are painfully aware, the city has been forced to raise levies to cope with a budget shortfall. It’s likely there’s more financial pain on the horizon. At a time when municipal taxes are going up, sharply, our government cannot be sending millions of dollars to France. If politicians, architects, and other officials have surveyed the landscape and determined that culture is something we need to import — at a price that’ll clear your nostrils — that strikes me as a failure of imagination, leadership, and economics. 

Is this intervention even warranted?  A few weeks ago, Jersey City hosted its fourth Art Fair 14C, an event that has grown so fast that it needed to move to the Armory, one of the largest indoor spaces in Hudson County.  In recent years, MANA Contemporary has opened its doors a little wider to the community, and we’ve discovered museum-quality shows there that are as good as any on the far side of the Hudson. Smaller galleries all over the city continue to show audacious work. The reputation of our arts community grows every year: The excellent New Jersey arts annual at the State Museum in Trenton was full of work from Jersey City creators. An internationally recognized arts museum would be a terrific complement to what we’ve been building. But at the rate we’re going, there’s an excellent chance that such an addition would have happened organically. There’s a very good argument to be made that the Pompidou ought to be paying *us* — or, at the very least, alleviating a financial burden that will fall on the shoulders of Jersey City taxpayers.

A Jersey City Pompidou may draw tourists to Journal Square. Then again, it might not.  At the moment, special exhibitions at the Pompidou in Paris are dedicated to Christian Marclay and Gerard Garouste. A show of films by Taiwanese artist Tsai Ming-Liang is scheduled to follow. There’s every indication that these are worthy exhibits, but they aren’t the sort of blockbusters that guarantee a reversal of PATH traffic between New York and Jersey City. The Pompidou has given no indication that it intends to work with Jersey City curators. It’s very likely that this museum will be booked by arts executives from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who know very little about Garden State tastes.

What if the Fulop Administration decided to dedicate some of that massive payout to those who do know?  Instead of conferring power and privilege on out-of-towners who’ve established their brand identity elsewhere, what if they promoted the local artists and arts institutions that have taken their stand here between the Hudson and the Hackensack? That’s unlikely to happen as long as local leaders prioritize celebrity and prestige, but if they were willing to admit to a costly mistake and reorient themselves, saner alternatives remain open to them.  At the moment, this administration is still under the mistaken impression that a reputation for excellence is something that can be bought. If they’d look under their noses, rather than across the sea, they might discover that the raw materials for building what they want are all right here. That sure beats years of buyer’s remorse for an institution we’re going to be paying for mightily, and likely regretting, for a long time. 

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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,...