The Distillery Gallery in the Heights Reopens After a Long Renovation With Third Dimension

The Distillery, located on Hutton Street in the Heights, reopens on Saturday April 21 after an 8-month renovation. To celebrate the makeover, the gallery will debut its latest exhibition, titled Third Dimension. We recently caught up with founder/board chairwoman Irene Borngraeber and board member and curator Gabriel Pacheco to discuss the renovation, the new exhibition and the ins and outs of running a community art space in the Heights.

Jersey City Independent: Hi, Irene and Gabriel. Tell us about the Distillery’s newest exhibition.

Gabriel Pacheco: This is strictly a sculpture show. It is the first time that we are doing this. Sculpture requires that the viewer engage with the work differently. They have to move around some of the pieces, bend, and touch the work. People should come out and see it because the art is great and it’s a different kind of exhibit.

Irene Borngraeber: Gabriel curated this show and I’m really excited we have the opportunity to showcase so many different forms of sculpture that aren’t often seen in this area. Space and logistical constraints make it difficult for most smaller galleries or multi-purpose venues to host sculpture shows, especially without the guarantee of selling work, so that tends to limit the art mediums we see represented in Jersey City. Providing a place for artists to exhibit three-dimensional pieces is actually one of the main reasons I decided to found the Distillery, so I have a personal connection to these kinds of shows.

The artists featured in the show are Joseph Chichirillo, James Gross Alverez, Alanna Hutt, Lee Levine, David Medina, Gabriel Pacheco, Dorothy Pizzuti, Lauren Puchowski and Marcos Rosales.

JCI: It’s been eight months since The Distillery’s last exhibition. What’s been going on? Has the gallery been on a hiatus?

Gabriel: The gallery has been on a hiatus because it has been under construction. We had to update a few things and we are now ready to move forward with shows on a regular basis. While the gallery was closed, the board members have been meeting to discuss a curatorial plan.

Irene: We’ve been closed for renovations for quite some time. We needed to get a variance for the building (which is really a modified garage) and get the approvals necessary to make the space fully functional as a gallery and provide room for program expansion. It was a necessary process, but now it means we can re-launch with a new range of activities we’d never have been able to support prior.

JCI: The Distillery opened in March 2010. To date, the gallery has hosted six exhibitions. If you had to evaluate your performance as a gallery, what grade would you give yourself? What have you learned about running a gallery over the past two years?

Gabriel: I became a board member after the inaugural exhibit so I will speak from that perspective. I would give us an 8. I learned that it is important to have a good working team.

Irene: Operating a gallery in Jersey City that also has a community-centered mission is very different than running a typical for-profit venue. As a gallery, I think we’ve supported our mission to deliver strong, curated shows and provide professional exposure to working artists. What I’ve learned is that the community meeting place the gallery has become is just as powerful in generating collaborations, other initiatives and neighborhood pride. It’s amazing what a creative space can do. I’ll give us an A for that.

JCI: What are the challenges to keeping a gallery open in the Heights?

Gabriel: One challenge has been trying to transform people’s opinions of the Heights. It’s important for people to see that art happens here too.

Irene: Meeting the demand! Seriously, it’s hard to keep up with the number of inquiries and partnership proposals that we’re approached with. But it is tough to get people used to operating within a downtown radius to come up to the Heights. It’s like there’s an invisible barrier at Newark and Palisade.

JCI: What type of outreach do you do to promote the gallery and the shows?

Gabriel: We have an extensive mailing list. I have reached out to other organizations in the community. I walk around with palm cards or business cards and always hand them out. Palisade Wine and Liquors also plays a big role because we put flyers and posters up announcing the shows.

Irene: Our mailing list is our main source of traffic, but we also post to New York-based art blogs, listing sites and schools, as well as collaborate with our neighborhood associations and local media. We have been able to cultivate a very stable group of buyers and supporters, which we’re really grateful for.

JCI: Do you have a business plan?

Gabriel: The board is in the process of putting a plan together and part of that includes developing a curatorial plan together for the year. Our goal is to put together strong art shows on a consistent basis.

Irene: Ah, money. Yes, we’re in the process of developing a long-term plan for gallery development now that the space is nearly complete. I don’t think we every had any illusions as to being able to fund the operation solely on art sales (that’s why we’re a non-profit), but through balancing exhibitions with other arts programming we’re able to sustain our business model.

JCI: Do you actively seek out a base of collectors for the gallery?

Gabriel: We have in the past and we have consistent buyers.

Irene: I like to see them as local investors, and yes.

JCI: What are the sources of revenue that allow you to sustain a gallery in Jersey City? I ask this because many galleries in the city have come and gone in the past ten years.

Irene: We have a huge boost in this area because our space and a large part of the gallery’s operations are supported by the owner of Palisade Wine and Liquors. He has invested in the gallery as a community space and believed in the power of the arts to transform the neighborhood, and we’re extremely grateful.

JCI: Has running the gallery provided any new insights about the art scene in Jersey City?

Gabriel: Yes, because the gallery is in the Heights there is now a discussion about creating an arts district.

Irene: Yes. Through the research that needed to be done as part of our variance application we found out that the area of the Heights we’re in is actually technically an arts district. Stay tuned for more about that.

JCI: What is your favorite part of the gallery?

Gabriel: Curating shows and how the gallery has the ability to transform peoples image of the Heights.

Irene: The fact that it’s taken on a life of its own — and that we’re still here.

JCI: And what is your least favorite part of the gallery?

Gabriel: The business end. I want it to be all about the art.

Irene: Saying no. But that’s part of being a professional space.

JCI: How do you select the artists in your exhibition or should artists approach your gallery to get a show?

Gabriel: We put out call for art works addressing a specific theme and the curator has the last word. Artists should put their names on the mailing list and check out our Facebook page.

Irene: We decided to stick with group shows up to this point in order to provide opportunities for a diversity of artists, but everything is left up to the curator in charge of the exhibition. We are looking to put out calls for curatorial proposals as we move forward, but for right now, the best thing is to respond to one of the calls for work on our mailing list.

JCI: Do you respond to unsolicited submissions? Also, what should an artist include in a submission – letter, work sample, resume?

Gabriel: We are only curating group shows right now so it’s best to respond to the call for work but artists should be sure to introduce themselves to the board members: Irene, myself and Willie. Artists can always feel free to drop off a package or arrange a studio visit if the artist is nearby.

Irene: Because we’re driven by curatorial vision, responding to a call is best.

JCI: If someone you cared for were beginning a career as a gallerist, what three pieces of advice would you give them?

Gabriel: You need a strong, board, funding and a certificate of occupancy because without these things you can’t function.

Irene: Know your audience, follow your business model and have a backup plan.

JCI: What are your goals for the gallery?

Gabriel: To establish a full-time teaching program. To use the gallery to empower young people through the arts. And bring quality artwork to our neighborhood.

Irene: Expand our arts education programming and open up the space to new curators.

JCI: What is next for the Distillery?

Gabriel: With the new construction we will have better facilities. We will develop a full year-long calendar and we a teaching program.

Irene: More exhibitions, more public programs and more partnerships.

© Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.


“Third Dimension”
The Distillery
7 Hutton Street
Jersey City NJ
Opening: Saturday, April 21, 6:30 — 9 pm
Exhibition Run: April 21 through June 1

Gallery hours:
Monday to Thursday by appointment only
Friday 6 to 8 pm, Saturday 1 to 4 pm, Sunday 1 to 4 pm

EMAIL: info[at]

Photos courtesy of the Distillery

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