Artists React to Jersey City’s Designation as 10th Most Artistic US City
Like boxing king Manny Pacquiao, Jersey City is punching above its weight class — the list includes cultural centers New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. So how did Jersey City, population 250,000 — a city without a museum, music venue or dedicated bookstore — manage to edge out the likes of Boston and Philadelphia?
Richard Florida, the senior editor of The Atlantic, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to rank cities based on the number of artists who live there compared to the overall population.
“We wanted to examine which metros have the largest concentration of artists relative to their population,” Florida notes. “We use a measure called a ‘location quotient,’ or LQ, which is basically a ratio that compares a region’s share of artists to the national share of artists.”
Jersey City’s LQ is 2.256, which means the city has roughly twice as many artists as the national average.
“It’s time to get over the notion that only large urban cities like New York or LA can make it as artistic centers,” says Florida. “While it’s true that large cities and metros dominate in terms of sheer numbers of artists, smaller communities are home to vibrant artistic communities as well — many with national and international reputations and reach.”
Despite bleak economic realities and a lack of financial infrastructure in place to nurture, support and sustain arts venues, Jersey City residents frequently get together to run galleries, organize shows and display artwork. They transform ground-floor apartments, glass factories and garages into exhibition venues. Notable institutions include New Jersey City University’s Visual Arts and Lemmerman Galleries, 58 Gallery, _gaia, Jersey City Art School, Curious Matter, WOOLPUNKstudios and STUDIO III VII I, to name just a few. And they are why Jersey City came out a winner.
But while many artists took pride in the news, others were skeptical.
“We don’t even have a museum anymore,” says Hiroshi Kumagai, who has a solo exhibition on now at 58 Gallery. The Jersey City Museum went into foreclosure in July of this year and remains closed pending a possible sale to the Jersey City Medical Center, whose CEO has said he would reopen the museum in some form if the sale goes through.
“Local government is neither friendly nor supportive of the scene,” says Kumagai. “I don’t expect Jersey City to be artistic anymore.”
Christine Goodman, the founder and head of Art House Productions, disagrees. “We have our own Division of Cultural Affairs which a lot of cities don’t have,” she says, “and the Special Improvement Districts are providing programs like Groove on Grove and the Central Avenue Mural Project. Local businesses exhibit art. There’s a new wave of dance, music and theater programs for youth and adults.”
Although Goodman did rattle off a list of reasons why Jersey City deserves to be on the list, she is still not satisfied. The city, she says, needs to grow. “The question becomes: where do we go from here?” she asks. “How do we ensure its survival? Where are our theaters, our museums, our art centers, our cinemas? How do we take this to the next level?”
Michelle Mumoli of Pop-UP Art is also looking to the future. “I can only speak for myself when I say that I would like my art organization to be a bridge to the Manhattan market and the New York art buyers,” Mumoli says. “The time has come for the buyers and collectors across the Hudson, to start taking that 10- to 20-minute train ride into Jersey City, and even Newark, to start buying up-and-coming work from talented, dedicated artists who are busting their rumps to make a living doing what they love.”
Performance artist and Jersey City native Nyugen E. Smith feels that artists are living here because of cheap rents, not because of a supportive environment. “[Artists] are staying probably because of the space they have to work for less money, close to NYC,” he wrote in an email.”DEFINITELY NOT because we have financial or exhibition opportunities for artists.”
Proximity to New York seemed to be a common factor in Jersey City’s success among many artists we interviewed. Eugene Lemay, the CEO of Mana Contemporary Art Center, says he has noticed many artists moving their studios from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island City.
“They are drawn to the sense of community we are able to provide,” he says. “By having all of the services artists and art collectors need under one roof — studios, framing, shipping and storage, for example — we’ve created an ideal working environment for artists. And there’s no big warehouse space like this left in New York City, so we have an advantage by being off the beaten path.”
Dancer Megha Kalia, who founded the Indian performing arts company Sitarrey, jumped the fence from Queens to Jersey City this past year because of the commercial spaces the city offered to the creative community.
“Residents can find anything from Indian arts to photography clubs and guitar classes in Jersey City,” Kalia comments. “There are studios for bands that provide space to rent that is a very important resource for aspiring artists.”
Painter Jon Rappleye, who currently has a solo exhibition at NJCU, appreciates the “cheap rent” in Jersey City, as well as the “peace of mind” the city provides its artists.
“Also the fact that it is more isolated,” says Rappelye, “I personally find it helpful to be away from the distraction of the city.”
Poet Jackie Clark, author of the chapbooks Office Work and Red Fortress, agrees. “Being so close to New York is great, but it is also great to leave the city and get some perspective on things, and as a writer, perspective is important,” says Clark. “There is still a sense that you are leaving ‘the city’ when you head home to Jersey City, even though my commute is quicker than certain friends of mine who live in Brooklyn.”
Plus, says Clark, “There isn’t the same kind of competitiveness that haunts indie/arts events in Brooklyn.”
Photographer Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, who recently organized the community-based art project Ask Me: Tell Me at Lucky Laundromat says she was “in shock” that Jersey City made the list.
“When I ride the PATH I always feel like the majority of Jersey City residents work in business contexts. Clearly what I seem to see tells me nothing,” observes Skvirsky. “It actually makes sense that artists would make Jersey City their home. While Jersey City is not NYC, it has a decidedly urban sensibility and I believe that appeals to artists.”
Artist Tom McGlynn, who began showing his work at Jersey City Museum prior to its move from the main branch of the Jersey City Public Library in 2001, noted that even with the absence of the museum, the arts in Jersey City are thriving.
“The Jersey City Museum closing was a real loss to the community,” says McGlynn, “but it’s interesting how resilient the community remains nevertheless.”