Jasmine Pierik
Jasmine Pierik

SMUSH Gallery has never been about money. Many of the most fascinating things they display aren’t even for sale. The SMUSH crew specializes in interactive experiences: sometimes, they’ll even let you touch the art. While the work on exhibit at the little space on 340 Summit Ave. has often been priceless, nobody involved in a SMUSH show is there to make a mint. They’re no temple of commerce and transactional aesthetics. In spirit, the gallery and performance space is closer to a community center.

So when SMUSH shook the can last week, you can be sure that the arts community heard the distress signal loud and clear. Given their integrity, these gallery-runners would not ask for cash unless is was absolutely necessary for their survival. In their e-mail solicitation, SMUSH directors Katelyn Halpern and Benedicto Figueroa were blunt: they need to raise $150,000 to keep the space running at the lofty standard of quality they’ve established. The future of the Gallery, they warned us, would be decided over the next few months.

In the interview below, Katelyn Halpern refused to call her Gallery essential. I’m not so modest: I will. The loss of SMUSH would be devastating to Jersey City arts. Its absence might not be felt immediately, but its excision would leave a deep scar on the cultural map that wouldn’t easily fade. It’s the small, single-proprietor art spaces that provide this city so much of its peculiar character — and SMUSH, in particular, is deeply reflective of the personalities of the people who run it. There’s no other place in town like SMUSH: a genuine multi-media center crammed into narrow quarters. SMUSH doesn’t simply provide offbeat fine arts exhibitions. They also host dance shows (Halpern is, herself, a dancer), a film series, talks on community, tarot card parties and board game nights. And SMUSH shines a little love on a part of town that rarely gets any: the modest, lo-rise residential district at the far southern end of Journal Square.

Like all good upstart galleries, SMUSH has a commendable track record of nonconformity. They’re ferocious champions of the sort of gently provocative, defiantly uncommercial art projects that would never get the time of day from a gallery with an eye on the bottom line. Halpern and Benedicto provide homes for quality art shows (and artists) that simply don’t fit anywhere else. It’s hard to imagine any room in town accommodating Christian Gallo’s urban exploration photographs and assemblies of crushed spray-paint cans, or as deeply personal and irregular as Marta Blair’s shape-shifting, immersive paintings, or as quirky, ingratiating, and manic as Kate Eggleston’s sculptures, or as unorthodox as Buttered Roll’s walk-thru comic book in lurid orange, or as marvelously head-scratching as Myssi Robinson’s mirror-bedecked black-curtain “portal” into another dimension. “Bodies Boobies Bootys,” the SMUSH show on display until Apr. 23, extends the gallery’s fascination with the corporeal: it’s an explicitly erotic show that comes without a trace of coercion or distress. Instead, the gallery presents sex as it ought to be, pure physical pleasure, delightful tactile indulgence, and transgressive togetherness at a time of bodily fear. Because it’s SMUSH, there’s an interactive element too. Visitors are invited to color in the front mural with crayons. These aren’t even (necessarily) phallic symbols. They represent SMUSH’s absolute faith in the creativity of their clientele, and their belief that when you step through that narrow door, you’re an artist, too.

SMUSH will be hosting a community pitch meeting — the first of many — via Zoom on Apr. 26 at 7:30 p.m.  The link will appear on the SMUSH website.  If you’re shy like me, you might bypass the chatter, cut to the chase, and click this contribution button.

Tris McCall/Jersey City Times: From an outsider’s perspective, SMUSH looks pretty successful. You’ve done lots of memorable shows, and there’s interesting stuff on the calendar. Why make this fundraising call now?  What’s changed for you?

Katelyn Halpern:  In those ways, we are pretty successful! We do tons of shows with tons of artists, but would you believe all that activity doesn’t pay the bills? For the first four years, we focused on working hard for art and community projects and didn’t worry too much about the money. Personal circumstances made that possible, specifically financial support from my marriage. A lot of things didn’t survive the pandemic, including that relationship. So here we are.

TMC: Some of the smaller rooms that give Jersey City so much of its character haven’t come back from pandemic-era closure. Even the big players seem like they’re in transition. MANA is renovating, and Art House doesn’t have a home at the moment. Do things seem particularly unstable to you right now?

KH: They do. There’s a lot of uncertainty and not a lot of consistent support. Everyone is trying to find their way — I was going to say after the pandemic, but it’s really through it, still.

Benedicto Figueroa: I think this instability has caused a sense of disconnectedness between everyone, too.

KH:Which is just another kind of instability. It makes sense that things would be unstable. The pandemic is one of the causes of that, yes, but Jersey City is developing so rapidly the ground is changing under all of our feet all the time. And instability isn’t all bad — it opens the way for change, sometimes very good change, like bringing Ben on as co-artistic director.

TMC: Charley Cano from Outlander Gallery wrote on his GoFundMe page that his current location on Monticello is too small and too obscurely stationed to do justice to his ambitions, or to Jersey City arts in general. I’m not sure that agree that his current location is obscure: it’s right at the active end of a commercial street. Outlander is roughly the same size as SMUSH. Can a small gallery simply not survive here?

KH: I don’t know. I’d like to think they can.

BF: There’s an intimacy to the programming we do that doesn’t work in big spaces.

KH: I think there’s a need for the small spaces, but also a need for understanding that the social enterprise is worthwhile. Our governments need to understand that, and so do our neighbors.  So many of these spaces are personal ventures, which means they are especially susceptible to change. Changes in the personal ripple to changes in the organization and operations in a snap. There’s not a superstructure to support us, so we are continually vulnerable. There is the new Arts Trust — we’re optimistic about that support and have applied for survival funding.

BF: I think it’s important to note that the spaces that originally helped create the arts community we have were small spaces. These larger players are more recent arrivals. When they started out, they, too, were scrappy, weird little art organizations trying to give artists and weirdos a place to create and play.

TMC: Has the location of the gallery been a challenge? Do you ever wish you could be somewhere with more foot traffic?

KH: The thing is, we have plenty of foot traffic. It’s just not necessarily commercial in the way I think you mean.

I love the space. The room is beautiful and everyone loves how it feels in there. It’s not perfect for any of the things we do, but it does well enough for all of them. It’s also not a random selection — SMUSH exists in the direct lineage of SHUAspace, which occupied 340 Summit until we did. Would more commercial foot traffic help? Probably. But I don’t think we could afford to move somewhere with more traffic even if we wanted to.

BF: It also feels like being in the neighborhood is a special thing, rather than being on a main street, or next to a bunch of businesses, or the PATH.

KH: If we had an unlimited budget? We’d stay in the same place —

BF: But use the whole building. Use the backyard.

KH: Build out a sprung floor. Put a cafe/bar in the other storefront for pre/post-show and another gallery.

TMC: So if your fundraising campaign was wildly successful, you wouldn’t move to Grove Street, or, say, Paris.  You’d reinvest right where you are. 

KH: Yes. Unlimited money would go to more space. Limited but abundant funding would go to people. Artists. We’d pay everyone. We’d be able to have multiple full-time staff members and part-time staff, artist stipends, commissions, guarantees.

It’s interesting and ironic that the small galleries that you’ve called cornerstones of a healthy scene are not themselves healthy businesses by traditional metrics. Like profit and loss statements — or paying the people who do the work of keeping it going. This is the part that has to change if anyone small is to survive. That’s why we put out the call. We want people to know what we’re dealing with so that they can help keep us around if they want to.  We don’t feel entitled to anyone’s money and we don’t want to complain. We just want to be transparent and state the facts.

TMC: What neighborhood do you consider SMUSH to be part of, anyway? Is it Journal Square, McGinley Square, northern Bergen-Lafayette? Or doesn’t that matter?

KH: I say Journal Square. Technically, we’re halfway between Journal Square and McGinley Square, but JSQ is more instructive for people who are coming via public transit.

BF: It’s also so much easier to explain to folks traveling from other parts of Jersey City that it’s a few blocks from Journal Square rather than say “well, you can take the 87 to Bergen and Academy and walk down… and blah blah blah.”

TMC: What do you reckon SMUSH contributes to the neighborhood? How acutely do you think your absence would be felt?  Or can’t something like that be quantified?

BF: It would be a far less interesting window to walk by.

This is a neighborhood where people have been dealing with constant change for the last few years, taking hit after hit. Whether it’s all the tearing down and building of new buildings and condos or the changing businesses around them, they’ve got really important things to worry about. But I do think it’s nice for us to be there. And I would like to believe we are appreciated, even if it is just as a curiosity on your way to the PATH.

KH: I think the city and regional arts community might feel it more than the neighborhood. But this town has a short memory and tolerates a lot of loss.

We’re often asked to make the case for why our place is essential. SMUSH is not essential, but we believe it is beneficial and valuable. We’ve made space for some weird, wonderful things and kept the space incredibly accessible to artists and community members. We’re also operating with some of the most transparent and thoroughly applied equity commitments in the city — really thinking about the future we’re building in each action. They’re on our website, linked in all of our email blasts, and we engage all of our co-producing artists with them. We really are trying to “do the work,” as they say.

TMC: Whenever you read those breathless articles from visiting journalists about the buzz in Jersey City, and how hip and happening we are, do you ever think, hey!, they’re talking about us! Or do you feel like they must be referring to something or somebody else?

KH: I think they mostly don’t know what they’re talking about at all.

If they knew what they were talking about, they would be talking about us and Deep Space and Eonta and lots of other little spots. I think they know what’s in the city’s marketing and development material, but they haven’t come to ask us for an interview.

BF: They stick to the pedestrian plaza!

TMC: For as long as I can remember, there’s been an egalitarian spirit to the arts in Jersey City, which is great, but along with that spirit comes a certain amount of jerry-rigging. Art shows in parking lots, rock bands stuffed into bodegas, poetry readings in dim light in corner bars, you know what I mean. Are you of the opinion that there’s a minimum budget necessary to do art shows — and the more money the better — or are you of the old-school Hudson County opinion that art can happen and flourish anywhere, and under any conditions?

KH: Anywhere and everywhere, except people do need to be paid. Money makes it easier, and safer, and less likely to be shut down. But I’m a toothpicks and scotch tape kind of artist — and by extension, arts administrator.

BF: A light kit and fancy sound system are cool. But you know what?, a lot of times, it’s the bodega rock show that changes lives and makes the more lasting impact.

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,...