After 13 Years as One of Jersey City’s Cultural Leaders, Lex Leonard Moves On

It is time for Jersey City to say goodbye to Alex “Lex” Leonard and his 1,400 square foot Downtown gallery and exhibition space. Leonard, who has been a stalwart force in Jersey City’s art scene for more than a decade, is shutting the doors to his gallery to pursue new projects across the river in New York City. We recently caught up with him to discuss his gallery, the state of the art scene in Jersey City and his future plans.

There is a going away party for Leonard on Saturday, November 27 at 143 Christopher Columbus Drive in downtown Jersey City, featuring “some old Waterbug favorites” like Aaron Jackson, Tom St. Patrick, Just Putt, Wyme and “some of my favorite local DJs,” Leonard says.

After four years of operation, you have decided to shut down the Lex Leonard Gallery. What happened?

I’ve had 13 years of fun and excitement in Jersey City, but I felt the time had come to simply move on.

Did the current economic climate contribute to your decision to close the doors?

Although the current economic climate did affect my tenants and inadvertently me, it had little to do with my decision to move. I simply grew restless. I felt my mission to help perpetuate the arts in Jersey City had been completed.

You have been knocking around Jersey City since 1997. In addition to directing the Lex Leonard Gallery, you also ran the Waterbug Hotel, and were a resident of 111 First Street. What is the current state of the arts in Jersey City?

I believe Jersey City is on the right track. There’s a new generation moving into the city and it’s an enthusiastic and talented one. However, I don’t think it’s as daring as my generation. I think I represent the last bastion of the true underground in Jersey City.

My generation and I possessed a sense of nihilistic lawlessness and decadence that made us special. Those that were part of the scene know what I mean. And by my generation, I mean the folks that spawned the 111 building and Jersey City arts stars that inspired me and those that helped me establish the scene which centered around the 143 Building — the four floor brick mastodon that housed the gallery, the first Waterbugs, my late night events, etc. All of this is Jersey City “underground” lore that someone should really write about — and I’d love to collaborate.

Lex Leonard Gallery was a creative hub in Jersey City as well as a great platform for emerging artists. How will the gallery’s closing affect the arts community in the city?

Oh, I think my closing won’t have much of an impact because there’s plenty of new blood in the city to keep things going.

In your opinion, who is the new blood, and what do they offer Jersey City?

The new blood is Parlay Studios, 4th Street and Grassroots Community Space. Although I named and co-founded the latter, the group is relatively made up of newcomers and has been doing a great job at ushering in a new Jersey City. Of course veteran institutions such as 660 Grand and LITM continue to successfully help keep things going.

What role did your gallery play in the cultural vitality of the city?

My gallery, The Waterbug Hotel and 143 as a whole played a major role in Jersey City’s cultural vitality in that these provided an open platform for local artists, performers and revelers. I stuck to my open-door policy as much as possible. Perhaps that’s what made my projects special. All were given a chance to demonstrate their talents. It didn’t matter where one would come from or what affiliations one may have had — all were welcome. I think that this open door policy may have contributed to some negative impressions among the community regarding the gallery and my other projects. Incidentally, I emulated Andy Warhol’s Factory in college and this inspired much of what I did in Jersey City.

What are the biggest obstacles to sustaining the cultural vitality in Jersey City? And what can the new blood do to circumvent these hurdles?

Gentrification is the biggest obstacle. The only way to circumvent this is with resourcefulness and cunning — money helps as well.

Do you have a favorite anecdote that epitomizes the Jersey City underground?

My favorite anecdotes (the ones that best exemplify the old underground) can’t be published. These stories could open up a box of some sort — let’s think sex, substances, culture and certain people! Oh, and fun.

Like I mentioned earlier, I emulated Warhol’s Factory and had I his money and fame I think I could’ve surpassed his crazy tales.

Seriously, a book must be written or perhaps a follow up story specifically about Jersey City’s underground. Coincidentally a few years ago my name popped up in a list of some of JC’s most active members of the art community and the byline for my listing was “ambassador to the underground.”

What three pieces of advice would you give to a new gallery director?

Keep an open mind. Trust few, love many. Know whether you’re in the game for the money or for the art.

What was your favorite part of the gallery?

Openings. I really enjoy artists being supported and nurtured.

What was your least favorite part of the gallery?

The business aspect. Money makes everything taste bittersweet.

What are your plans for the future?

The immediate plan is to scout for fertile ground. Next: Initiate some sort of renaissance either near or far.

Do you have any parting words?

As one of my faves go: “I love the friends I have gathered together on this thin raft…

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.