Art without a home City’s artists have lots to say, but fewer places to say it

Jorge Cacheiro and Olga Levina had what they thought was a great idea: turn Jersey City into a world-renowned cultural destination by staging new plays from nationally known writers right here.

They formed an organization, came up with a name – Jersey City Theater Center – and convinced playwright Luis Santeiro to let them put up the world premiere of his new play, Land O’ Fire.

But after seven months of hunting for suitable space, the organization’s financial backers began to get antsy. Finally, they found the perfect spot for the Jersey City Theater Center’s debut performance – New York City.

“To me, it’s very disappointing that we were not here when we did a world premiere,” Cacheiro said in a recent interview. “That play will not be published with ‘World premiere in Jersey City.’ It’s going to be published, ‘World premiere on Christopher Street.’ ”

Gimme shelter

The story of the Jersey City Theater Center has become a common one, as local artists and arts organizations struggle to find places to present their work to the public.

Last year, half a dozen new art galleries opened in Jersey City, but in the past six months, none have. In fact, so far this year, the opposite has happened.

Word came in January that Victory Hall on Grand Street – easily the most active cultural venue in the city – would close and be replaced by a preschool this fall. And Cooke Contemporary, one of the most lauded new galleries in Jersey City in years, closed its doors recently.

“Last year we did have almost like a renaissance,” said Ev Stone of Mana Fine Arts, a large gallery and art-storage facility on Coles Street. “We had a lot more galleries, and what I’ve seen happen this year is that two of the main spaces … are leaving. Gone.”

In addition, the scarcity of live-music venues here is a fact of life for local musicians. It’s something they have complained about for years, especially since the 2005 closing of the popular downtown bar and club Uncle Joe’s.

A search for a permanent home

One of Victory Hall’s former tenants, multi-media arts organization Art House Productions, was lucky enough to find a temporary home. Thanks to the donation of a space by local developer Exeter Properties, Art House’s events will be held on the top floor of the old St. Francis Hospital building on McWilliams Place for about the next 18 months.

But Christine Goodman, head of Art House Productions, said the search for a permanent space has been slow going.

“It’s hard to find permanent room in this city. Space is definitely on everybody’s minds these days,” she said. “It’s tough. I know a lot of organizations that can’t produce the programs that they want to produce because there’s nowhere to do it, and the spaces that are available are booked.”

Buyers be where?

There appears to be little agreement among the city’s artists about why there are so few arts venues, or about what can be done to change that.

Some blame the current development trends favoring residential over commercial construction for the dearth of venues, because commercial buildings are necessary for galleries and performance spaces.

Others say the city has not yet fully embraced its artistic community.

However, artists may be choosing to show their work in New York City because of simple economics. Artists have to sell their artwork to pay the rent, and New York City is still a better place to get noticed or to sell work.

Some local artists have their hopes set on the deep pockets of the expected wave of residents moving into the city’s pricey new condos. But Paul Sullivan, former president of local arts organization Pro Arts, appeared to be skeptical about whether new residents – many of them transplants from Manhattan – will invest in local art.

“I think the record so far for those people is, if you ask them, ‘Real quick: Who’s the mayor?’ they’ll say Bloomberg,” he said, referring to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “So I’m not sure whether you’re going to get that pride of community, which will lead to pride of local cultural assets.”

Growing pains

Duda Penteado is head of the city’s Artist Certification Board, which determines who is qualified to apply for reduced-cost artists’ housing. He suggested that the city’s arts scene is simply growing up.

“It could be that [the arts scene in] Jersey City is morphing, it’s maturing,” he said. “It’s just a young teenager with a lot of potential, and it’s becoming an adult.”

Penteado said plenty of new cultural venues are on their way to replace the old ones, including new arts buildings at New Jersey City University, the continuing restoration of the Loew’s Theater in Journal Square, and planned spaces in the Powerhouse Arts District (PAD), the roughly 10-block Downtown neighborhood centered on the historic Hudson & Manhattan Powerhouse.

Developers building in the PAD are required to set aside a portion of their space for galleries and artists’ lofts.

Will crash PAD be in place?

But mentioning the PAD to some local artists lets loose a firestorm of criticism.

A particularly touchy subject is the fate of 111 First St., an arts colony located in the district that was shuttered in early 2005. It is now being demolished to make room for a mixed-use luxury tower that will meet the PAD’s requirements for arts spaces but will exceed the district’s height restrictions.

Charles Kessler, one of the prime movers in the city’s modern arts scene, argued that those kinds of compromises to the district’s vision will make it impossible for the PAD to fulfill its promise as a refuge for displaced arts organizations like Victory Hall.

“Those places may have fallen anyway, but they would have had space in the arts district,” he said. “It’s inevitable these places are going to be pushed out – smaller galleries, artist-run galleries. As real-estate prices go up, it’s going to be harder and harder. But the idea was, the arts district would be there for them. It’s not.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the PAD will cultivate a successful arts scene, but many local artists have staked their futures on it. Dozens of them have moved into special artists’ housing in such buildings as 140 and 150 Bay St. and the Waldo Lofts on Second Street.

Many of those artists are fighting to make their neighborhood live up to its name. The newly formed PAD Neighborhood Association is planning to unleash a media blitz – starting at this Wednesday’s City Council meeting – to “shame the city” into preserving the district’s character.

Whether such efforts succeed could determine the future of the PAD – and with it, whether the city reaches its cultural aspirations.

Christopher Zinsli can be reached at


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