Does Jersey City have more Creative Potential than NYC?

21 Oct

Can Mana Contemporary make the transition from NYCArt in Jersey City to scene weaver?

It’s time to revisit a question I posed a couple of months ago in the wake of Steven Fulop’s ground-breaking election as Mayor of Jersey City: is Jersey City a 21st Century Florence?

A Time for New Institutions

First let’s once again review a crude little story I’ve been telling for years. It goes like this:

In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.

But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.

So, just what are the possibilities for new institutions? Are any emerging?

On the latter question, sure, I guess. But the basic institutions of life in the West, if not the rest, have been inherited from the 19Century and before. This is overlaid by large international corporations and various international treaties, pacts, and NGOs. And the web has emerged in the last 20 years as a vehicle of communication and dissemination, and it’s certainly changing the institutions of higher education.

But the deepest kind cultural work needs to be done face-to-face. What are the prospects there?

Well, of course, I don’t know. But let’s think about the three institutions I’ve been examining recently: Mana Contemporary, the MacArthur Fellows Program, and the SUNY Buffalo Department of English for roughly a decade or so in the 1970s. Can we make something new out of that? What? How?

We Got Lucky: SUNY English

As I’ve indicated here, in a post on the MacArthur Fellowships, and here, in a brief independent post, the Department of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo was a magical place back in the 1970s or so. But only for a decade or so, according to this piece by Bruce Jackson. It was largely built by the late Al Cook, who was given a blank check by his provost, Warren Bennis. Cook simply hired the brightest and most interesting people he could find.

That’s important. He didn’t start with a vision for what the department should be. Rather, he got superb people and let them figure out what kind of department they wanted to have.

It was by no means perfect. It wasn’t a paradise or, if you will, in the Proustian fashion, it was one only in retrospect and by comparison. Departmental meetings could drag on forever to little apparent effect, and graduate seminar sessions weren’t really forums where the students could hash things out under that watchful guidance of the instructor. They were like graduate seminars everywhere else, poorly prepared mini-lectures-rambles by the instructor.

But there were interesting people falling out of the walls and great work got done. In particular, the department had a respect for the life of the mind and the pursuit of knowledge that went deeper the mere institutional requirements. But the glory years lasted only a decade. Why?

I’ve been told that the local Buffalo gentry rethought the idea of making SUNY Buffalo into a Berkeley of the East Coast. They found the student activism of those days to be a bit scary and didn’t want it in their town, nosiree! That may have been part of it.

But mostly I think that such things, such scenes if you will, are delicate and short-lived creatures. We got lucky.

Would it be possible to create an institution that somehow spins off such scene at a higher than usual rate?

Look to the Periphery: the MacArthur Fellows Program

I don’t know who it was that first dubbed the MacArthur Fellows Program (MAP) “the genius grant”, but it wasn’t the MacArthur folks and they can’t shake. Nor, I rather imagine, do they really want to. As long as journalists keep pinning it on the program, they can keep batting it away. For it’s that label that gets them press coverage, that and the Big Name they toss into the ring every now and then, like TV producer and director David “The Wire” Simon in 2011.

However, I’d hate to try to appropriate that label – “genius” – for more creative purposes. Too tricky.

When I started my inquiry into MAP I had two simple things in mind: 1) to reiterate the charge that it’s too conservative in its choices to warrant the “genius” brand, and 2) it could produce more interesting slates of fellows simply by not giving any awards to people on staff at elite institutions. By the time I’d finished that series – four posts more than I’d planned – I still believed that.

In the process I’d managed to think through, albeit informally, the cultural dynamics of MAP in the context of our current scene, where cultures are changing rapidly. In that context it seemed to me that to award the majority of fellowships to people on staff at existing elite institutions is to award the past. By refusing to do that, perhaps the MAP would therefore place more bets on the future.

What I think is that creative people, especially in their formative years, are and will be attracted to existing elite institutions – such as those served the MacArthur Foundation – simply because they are there and have gathered lots of talented and interesting people. The people I’m interested in may well have been through an elite institution or three, and they may well exist near one. So I’m not dismissing elite institutions out of hand, but, in the current period of cultural flux, I’m more interested in the hinterlands of such institutions.

It’s thus worth remembering that SUNY Buffalo was not, in fact, a Berkeley of the East Coast, nor was it Harvard or Yale. And folks at Buffalo were rightly dismissive of the Harvard English Department of the 1970s. Harvard may well be (one of) the most elite of elite universities, but its English Department back then was an intellectual backwater. So, that very creative and seminal scene in Buffalo arose on the periphery of the elite institutions of its time.

Mana Contemporary: NYC in Jersey City

And that brings us to Mana Contemporary, which is on the western edge of Jersey City. And Jersey City is on the west bank of the Hudson River, right across from New York City, the aging and possibly moribund virtual capital of the world.

As this recent New York Times article says, Mana Contemporary is an arts complex housed in almost two million square feet of warehouse space (it has acquired property since the Times article). Such space is cheaper in Jersey City than it is in New York City.

That’s why Mana Contemporary is in Jersey City. It’s built atop the for-profit business of fine-arts storage. While some of the individual collectors and institutions that use the facility may be located in Manhattan, they don’t need to store their overage there. Jersey City is close enough. Similarly, many of the artists with studio space at Mana Contemporary don’t mind commuting to Jersey City from homes in Manhattan (or elsewhere). The studio space at Mana is superb and much cheaper than it would be in Manhattan or even Brooklyn.

So, Mana Contemporary is a chunk of the New York City art scene that’s located in New Jersey because the real estate is cheaper. When Mana has a major event, it runs a shuttle bus from Manhattan.

The New York City art scene is, of course, international in reach and influence. It attracts artists to the New York City area. Up and coming artists have long since been priced out of Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s getting pricy as well. So many of them are now living in Jersey City, which has an interesting arts scene, one that now seems to be bubbling with new life here and there for reasons that are a bit mysterious to me and which, so far as I can tell, have little to do with Mana Contemporary, which is still something of a mystery to most people in Jersey City.

What does Mana Contemporary mean to Jersey City? What could its presence in the city do for the city? That’s not at all clear.

Jersey City, Creative Potential

Back in the day Jersey City was about transportation, moving people and goods of all kinds into and out of New York City. Jersey City was a port and a railroad hub leavened by light industry. It was a working class city.

That came to an end in the last third of the 20th Century. Fright shipping moved to container ships. They were too big to make it up the Hudson River to dock on Manhattan’s west side and in Jersey City and Hoboken. When ocean-going freight left Manhattan and Jersey City, the railroads left as well; there was no need for them here. All of that action shifted a bit south, toward Elizabeth, NJ, and Jersey City had to reinvent itself.

Which it has done, as back-office to Wall Street. The tallest building in New Jersey is in Jersey City, and it was built by Goldman Sachs. Jon Corzine, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and former Governor of New Jersey lives in Hoboken. Other major financial firms have large offices in Jersey City as well.

These firms attract highly educated people to Jersey City. Many of them commute over the Hudson to New York City, but many of them stay in Jersey City to work. And many of these people are immigrants. In one recent study, Jersey City was named as the second most diverse city in the United States. Vallejo, California, was first while New York City was ninth. The ranking is based, not on absolute numbers of different ethnic groups in the city, but “by measuring how near the population was to an equal distribution of residents across the four most common ethnic groups: Hispanic/Latino, White (non-Hispanic), Black (non-Hispanic), and Asian/Pacific Islander (non-Hispanic).”

So, we’ve got highly educated people from all over the world who come to Jersey City to move up in the world. What could that mean for Mana Contemporary and for Jersey City?

I take it as given that cultural change and flourishing is driven, in part, by cultural diversity. Those Italian city-states that kicked off the Renaissance weren’t isolated country villages. They traded across Northern Africa, through the Middle and Far East, and all over Europe. That trading paid for the creativity, but it also kept ideas in flux.

Mana Contemporary: Scene Weaver?

The question I’m asking myself is whether or not Mana Contemporary could catalyze and spin off a dozen or so world-class creative scenes in the next quarter century, all of them physically centered in Jersey City, but with electronic tentacles extending around the world. When I say “creative scene” I’m thinking about the English Department at Buffalo back in the day. That’s the kind of vibe and scope of activity I’m after.

These scenes in Jersey City wouldn’t necessarily be intellectual, like that in Buffalo, though they could be. Given that Mana Contemporary is about art, the scenes are more likely to be artistic in character, at least initially. And, while Mana Contemporary aspires to the arts in general, it the present time it’s mostly about painting, sculpture, and photography. There’s two dance companies there, but little or no music that I can see and not much film and video.

What talent is already resident in Jersey City that could be moved to a higher level through programs run by Mana Contemporary. What talent could be attracted to live in Jersey City to be near Mana? Mana has plans for a hotel on-sight. That’s temporary living. What about long-term residency?

I don’t have answers to these questions. But I do believe that these are the questions that Mana Contemporary should be thinking about, and Jersey City as well.

New York City is giving every sign of being “full up.” There’s so much already there, of course, that it’s still a marvelous place to be. The illusion of cultural life is a strong one, especially when so many want to believe in it. But I fear that the city is living off cultural capital it built-up over the last century and that, in the Wall Street drive for money money money, it isn’t taking care to replenish it.

So, who knows, perhaps in 25 years or so Jersey City will be the more lively and creative place to be just as the English Department at Buffalo once sent Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Berkeley to the cleaners.


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