Museum Board, Medical Center and Art School All Play a Role in Jersey City Museum’s Reopening

On Saturday, the Jersey City Museum will open its doors for the first time since December 2010, when financial problems forced it to close. To aid the museum’s general resurrection, two local institutions — a hospital and an art school — will be pitching in.

Tomorrow’s “soft reopening” includes “Masters of the Collection,” an exhibition of 19th-century Hudson County landscapes by artists August Will and Charles Linford. This and other art shows moving forward will be curated by the museum’s board of trustees; the Jersey City Art School (JCAS) will host events in the 152-seat Caroline L. Guarini Theater.

The Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC) purchased the foreclosed museum building on Montgomery Street in February and announced plans to use its second and third floors for office space with the museum’s art collection remaining in-house and the two galleries on the ground floor left available for exhibits.

“We are excited about this exhibit… and eagerly look forward to the museum’s exhibits in the months ahead,” says Joseph Scott, CEO of the medical center. “The Jersey City Museum is a real treasure for the city and our objective is to continue to make this resource readily available to the people who live and work in the community the hospital serves.”

The museum, which is more than a century old, has long been plagued by financial woes. Much of the trouble started in 2001 when the museum moved into its new facility (it was previously housed in the main branch of the Jersey City Public Library), which it received from the City Redevelopment Agency for $1. While renovating the building, however, the museum took on a reported debt of $11 million. By the time the museum refinanced with Sovereign Bank, through the Economic Development Authority in 2008, a debt of $2.7 million remained and that number grew faster than the museum could pay it down, leaving the museum scrambling to avoid foreclosure.

With the recession and funding cuts from the city in 2010, the museum had to reduce its hours and lay off its entire staff. That September, a local arts organization said the museum owed them about $30,000 for nearly a year and the museum also had difficulty even keeping the lights on.

While the city offered assistance in non-monetary forms to the museum, they refused to extend an “emergency injection” of funds to the museum as the city faced its own financial problems. In 2010, the city decreased museum funding by 25 percent (from $625,000 per year to $500,000) before cutting funding entirely.

Possible partnerships with New Jersey City University or the Liberty Science Center and a sale to the United Way of Hudson County surfaced as possible solutions, but each idea fell through and the bank took ownership of the building.

The museum’s eclectic collection includes 10,000 works by artists like Cy Twombly, Andres Serrano, Leonard Baskin, Chakaia Booker and many locals.

Will immigrated to the United States in the early 1850s, settling in Jersey City around 1855. He founded an art school in New York City, where he taught for 38 years. His work, officials say, documents the transformation of Hudson County from a rural and agricultural land into an urban, industrialized community. Museum volunteer Michelle Larsen said the artist’s will only allowed his family to sell his work to the Jersey City Museum, leaving them with the majority of Will’s work.

Pittsburgh native Linford, born in 1846, was a student of landscape and still-life painter George Hetzel. He enjoyed painting scenes scattered with birch trees en plein air and although his landscapes differ from the more majestic scenes of the Hudson River School artists, they also express a longing for the untouched wilderness that was vanishing during the country’s industrialization.

The Jersey City Art School, which has rapidly expanded over the past year and includes a new artist studio space in Downtown Jersey City’s Hamilton Square and locations on Third and Fifth Streets, will host events in the building’s theater. JCAS Founder Thomas John Carlson says they will start hosting events by mid-July, including established programs like the school’s film forums and artist lecture series. Eventually, Carlson hopes to have music shows and other events in the space as well.

He says Scott personally approached him earlier this year to discuss running the theater, where JCMC recently had a video system installed.

“The shared vision that Joe and I had on this is that it’s a physical space that should be utilized and managed,” Carlson says. “My goal is really to get the community using that space. There’s a consistency that needs to exist with a 150-seat theater in Jersey City.” He says he hopes to utilize the space to its fullest potential.

Carlson says the museum itself has an overwhelming task. “It’s really very difficult because they are understaffed… They’re good guys, they’re trying to hold on to this museum and the collection, but their task is pretty large.”

Board of Trustees member Mark Rodrick seemed more optimistic, noting that the museum’s biggest burden — its mortgage — is now off its shoulders thanks to a “terrific marriage” with their “savior,” JCMC. He says the board plans to continue maintaining the collection and to show it to the public.

“Now that we occupy the first floor, we’re hoping to do more shows like this one… Up until last year we were still getting donations and actively taking in works of art. We were closed to the public but very much alive… We’re really ecstatic to be open and let the public see the art,” says Rodrick.

He says most important is the museum’s ability to inspire young artists. “Thousands of kids came through this institution and were introduced to art, which in my opinion, is really a great thing. (Art is) something you have to experience and I think that was what was missing when we were closed — that’s why we want to reopen.”

“Masters of the Collection” opens tomorrow, June 30, at noon at the Jersey City Museum, located at 350 Montgomery St. There will be no admission fee on opening day, which will run through 6 pm. The museum will be open on Saturdays in July from 12 pm to 3 pm when entry will be a suggested donation of $10.

Check out photos of some of the work in the exhibit:

Photos by Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.