Manafest Destiny — Eugene Lemay’s Vision of a New Kind of Jersey City Art Experience

This story appears in the Spring 2012 issue of NEW magazine.

Jersey City is known for its scrappy, artist-run exhibition venues and performance spaces, which get by on sweat equity and love.

But it may soon be known for another kind of arts venue as well: Specifically, one of the biggest contemporary arts institutions in the state and surrounding area, including the metropolis next door.

Mana Contemporary is located inside the former Lorillard Company industrial complex in the Marion section of Jersey City. To the north run Routes 1&9, to the south run train tracks, and to the east sits India Square. To the west lies a post-industrial wasteland, the perfect foil to New Jersey’s sublime chemical sunsets.

Rather than knock down a pre-existing structure or construct a sleek new building, Mana Contemporary chose to reuse an old industrial complex on the edge of town. The building itself became a muse for Mana’s founders, its size and scope not only matching their ambitions, but continuing to encourage new ideas and experiments. The conversion is miraculous. CEO and co-founder Eugene Lemay is happy with the choice.

“We decided this building was the right fit for Mana after viewing the large square footage, which fosters incredible opportunities for the art community in Jersey City,” Lemay says. “This combined with all the natural light, raw aesthetics, and the fact that it’s in a low-risk zone for environmental and security hazards made the Lorillard Factory the ideal location for Mana Contemporary.”

Lemay suggests a larger picture to the creative reuse of existing architecture.

“The most positive point of reclaiming buildings is that instead of land and buildings being left to rot in stagnation, they can be reclaimed, restored, and re-used,” he says. “We recognized that this often has a tremendously regenerative effect upon a local community. We saw the abandoned factory as an opportunity to bring life, art, and commerce back into the area.”

I wonder what would have happened if the former landlord of 111 First Street shared the same foresight and imagination as Eugene Lemay. If you remember, he knocked down the old tobacco factory to construct the centerpiece of the Powerhouse Arts District known as the Hanging Towers. The mixed-use structure, designed by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas, is 52 stories and holds 1.2 million square feet of mostly residential space. Too bad the project is dead in the water.

Mana’s resulting space is big and ambitious. The 500,000-square-foot facility (with plans to expand to more than 1 million square feet) provides artist studios, exhibition and performance venues, collection and storage facilities, and arthandling services. It is a sanctuary for contemporary artists and an innovative venue for collectors, institutions and the greater community. By comparison, Manhattan’s New Museum is 60,000 square feet.

Mana Contemporary Art Center is the newest offshoot of Moishe’s Moving Company. As the moving company’s former president and chief executive, Lemay helped develop the business beyond domestic moving and storage and into niches such as art handling, collection and management.

Mana Contemporary is a love story between art and business. If the marriage is successful, Jersey City might become home to one of the most dynamic art centers in the country.

The space opened to the public with a bang on May 15 of last year. More than 2,000 people from Jersey City, New York, and the immediate area attended the reception, which included food, music and performance. Charlie Rose and Milton Esterow, editor and publisher of ARTnews, made opening remarks. The inaugural exhibition showcased the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation, which includes such heavyweights artists as Ida Applebroog, Bill Viola, and Julie Heffernan. Several international and nationally acclaimed artists have studio space in the buildings. Notable artists include Yigal Ozeri, Carole Feuerman, Lili Almog, Doug Argue, Trudy Benson, Shen Wei, Stanley Casselman and Lemay himself, to name a few.

Since its inception, Mana Contemporary has become something of a mini art city. When Lemay and his co-founders Yigal Ozeri, a renowned painter, and Mike Weiss, a gallery owner, conceived of it, it was an all-in-one art center that would bring together influential artists, collectors, galleries, and dealers, as well as the general public.

If the name Mana rings a bell to Jersey City art scenesters, there’s a reason: Mana Fine Arts previously operated out of the Moishe’s Moving Company building under the New Jersey Turnpike extension in Downtown Jersey City; the space was an artstorage facility, and it also hosted a number of exhibitions in the first floor gallery, including the 2006 studio tour show What Have You Got to Say?, The Chair Show, and _gaia’s Wonder Women III group exhibition.

As an art center, Mana Contemporary has come along way from its previous incarnation.

“Mana existed on a relatively small scale at its original location on Coles Street,” Lemay says. “Perhaps it was the vastness of the new building combined with the potent local artistic community that offered the opportunity for Mana to fully bloom.”

In addition to being the founder and CEO of Mana Contemporary, Lemay is also an accomplished artist and successful businessman. Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Lemay spent his formative years living and studying in Israel. His series of abstract photographs use both Hebrew and Arabic letters, which coalesce above dark expanses. He has recently exhibited in solo shows at Total Arts Gallery in Dubai and Galeria De Art in Buenos Aires as well as a group show at Art Affairs Gallery in Amsterdam.

Weiss is the advisor of Mana Contemporary. For nearly two decades, he has been involved in the art world as a curator, advisor, and entrepreneur. In 2003, he opened Mike Weiss Gallery in Chelsea, New York. The aim of the gallery is to present the work of ambitious contemporary artists at all levels of their careers and development. His roster of artists includes KAORUKO, Trudy Benson and Christian Vincent.

And Ozeri is Mana Contemporary’s booster and champion. Like Lemay, he also maintains a large studio space in the facility. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation and is represented by Mike Weiss Gallery. His latest muse is Lizzie Jagger, the daughter of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. He has exhibited his work at SCOPE Basel, in Switzerland; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, in San Francisco, among others.

“We both desired to bring contemporary artists into the space as a way to attract art enthusiasts to the building [and] area,” Lemay says of Ozeri. “Mike Weiss suggested bringing in an art foundation to get collectors, art dealers, and artists interested in the space. This spawned the rebirth of the company as Mana Contemporary, representing a concentration in services for the contemporary art world.”

Now Mana Contemporary is evolving into something larger, more ambitious and philanthropic, a giant community center with aims to bridge cultural divisions. An “all-inclusive art complex for the vast and ever-expanding artistic community,” as Lemay puts it.

“A sculpture garden, dance studio, theater partnership, and artist residency program are all in the works,” Lemay says.

While many of Mana’s projects are in the hush-hush development stage, with scant details available, we got the scoop on a few.

The sculpture garden will be located mainly in front of the building, and will continue all through the sprawling complex’s grounds. The dance studio, located in the building, will feature rehearsals that are open to the public. “[We’re] interested in showing the process of creating a dance, not just the finished product,” Lemay says.

Meanwhile, other institutions are partnering with Mana and putting together inventive programming at the center. Videoart.net, which provides a community for makers of experimental film and, as the name implies, video art, is a prime example. The organization, based in New York City, now has a screening room on Mana’s sixth floor, where it has featured selections from its annual Video Art and Experimental Film Festival.

But perhaps the most interesting development is the creation of a Middle East Center for the Arts (MECA).

“MECA is a personal project of mine,” Lemay says. “I grew up in the Middle East and have witnessed firsthand the social, political, and economic strife that encompasses the region. This left me very interested in art from the area.”

MECA will be “a gallery, an idea lab, and a production studio committed to the mission of a better Middle East,” he says. “The gallery offers a chance for artists from regions of conflict to display and work side by side.”

Exciting projects are afoot for the year ahead.

“We have a full year of events already in the works, with each endeavor centering on a different important theme,” Lemay says. “Our first exhibition will feature 16 artists working and living in Israel … the artists differ in age, speak separate languages, and come from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze.”

When I first learned about Mana Contemporary, I wondered how it would fit in as part of Jersey City, with its reputation as the underdog of the art world, a reputation I frankly cherish. To be blunt, I was put off by the size, ambition, and vision of Mana Contemporary, and approached the institution with a fair amount of skepticism.

These guys are carpetbaggers, bringing a top-down approach to Jersey City’s very bottom-up arts scene. They’re out-of-towners, interlopers, just looking to make a buck. What do these guys know of Chilltown, anyway?

These sentiments, mind you, are coming from a guy who was not born and raised in Jersey City, but in Kendall Park, New Jersey, some 35 miles outside of the city. Why I clung to this provincial idea of what Jersey City is, and should be, I have no idea. A large, fiscally sound, artist-led institution is a good thing. So … what was I afraid of? I don’t know.

To alleviate my fears, and quench my curiosity, I visited Mana Contemporary back in September to see the photorealist collection of Louis P. and Susan K. Meisel, and I was astounded by the work on view. Although I was not a fan of the entire show – photorealism is too cold for me – I did appreciate the oncein-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Meisel’s personal collection in one venue, which included work by Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy and others. The collection also featured “’73 Malibu” (1974) by Robert Bechtle, which is one of my favorite paintings.

I was also floored by the facility, with its pristine exhibition spaces and customized studios. One of my favorite experiences was just looking outside the windows on the sixth floor, which overlook industrial wasteland, as well as Manhattan. As I took in the exhibition, and popped in an out of artist studios, I could not believe that I was still in Marion. A thriving art city is developing on the outskirts of town in the shadow of the Pulaski Skyway.

What could be better?

Photos: Josh DeHonney

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.