What will happen to 10,000 artworks?
With Museum shut, city seeks inventory of collection
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Mar 06, 2011 | 3519 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Jersey City Museum, at 350 Montgomery St., has been closed to the public since December.
The Jersey City Museum, at 350 Montgomery St., has been closed to the public since December.

By all current indications, the United Way of Hudson County will move forward with plans to buy a building at 350 Montgomery St., the building that now houses the Jersey City Museum.

The museum closed its doors to the public in December, but it is still the home of Romare Beardon’s “Madonna and Child,” Charles P. Appel’s “Sunset near Old Lyme,” John Parris’ “Desideratum,” and many other works of fine art.

While United Way President Dan Altilio has expressed a willingness to lease a portion of the space back to the museum, the specific details of this plan have yet to be negotiated, and it’s possible the deal could fall through, leaving thousands of artworks in limbo.


The board’s leadership welcomed the request for an inventory about as warmly as the art world welcomes forgeries.


The collection is now the subject of a custody spat between the city and the museum’s board of directors, who are arguing over the scope and ownership of the collection.

In January, in a letter from city Corporation Counsel William Matsikoudis, the administration of Mayor Jerramiah Healy asked the museum’s Board of Directors for a “full inventory/catalog of the permanent art collection” so the city can make plans to ensure the long-term safety of the collection, should some or all of it need to be moved from 350 Montgomery.

The board’s leadership welcomed the request for an inventory about as warmly as the art world welcomes forgeries.

There is now a conflict between the two sides regarding who owns the collection, and who’s responsible for its preservation and safekeeping.

Whose collection?

The Jersey City Museum was founded in 1901 and, like many similar institutions across the country, grew out of the city’s public library system. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the museum gradually split from municipal control.

Today, there are roughly 10,000 pieces of artwork in the museum’s collection, some of which are in storage, some of which have been loaned out to other arts or educational institutions, and some of which are still at 350 Montgomery St.

With the museum’s future unclear, the city drafted a letter in January addressed to the Board of Directors.

“On behalf of the city of Jersey City, we write to confirm that the board of the Jersey City Museum is adequately protecting the Jersey City art collection,” wrote Matsikoudis in a letter dated Jan. 11. “In light of the museum’s financial problems, we need assurance that the collection is being protected pursuant to the terms of the contract between the museum and the city.”

Matsikoudis went on to request that the board submit to the city an inventory of the permanent collection, indicating “where each item is stored, on display, or on lend to other entities. Finally, please confirm that each piece is stored in conditions conducive to the preservation of Jersey City’s permanent art collection.

The city requested that the inventory be completed by Feb. 11.

The board’s leadership was apparently not impressed with the request.

In a response letter to Matsikoudis, Board Vice Chair James Kobak wrote, “I must say that we are surprised by the city’s sudden professed interest in the protection of what it refers to as ‘the Jersey City art collection…’ The city is responsible for those ‘financial problems’ because of its failure to fulfill its financial commitments to the museum.”

Although the museum is a financially independent institution, it has received city funding since its inception. But in recent years, with the city facing a deficit, that funding has been cut. Last year the city gave the museum $500,000, a drop from $625,000 the year before.

In his letter, Kobak goes on to state that “substantial parts of the collection” belong, not to the city, but to the museum’s board.

As of last week the inventory list had yet to be received by the city.

“If there are items that have been donated to the board, that’s fine,” said Director of Cultural Affairs Director Maryanne Kelleher. “We simply want that documented so that we can adequately protect artworks that were acquired by the city. Our interest is in protecting and preserving works owned by the city.”

History repeating?

If the permanent art collection is forced out of 350 Montgomery, and has to be placed in storage, it wouldn’t be the first time. And the past could be an indication of the future.

According to the museum’s web site, the collection was stored away at least once before, in the 1950s, during another economic downturn in the city when the museum was “largely dormant…With its future in doubt and financial support to the library dwindling, the museum’s permanent collection was stored away and its activities were curtailed.”

This low period in the museum’s history was followed by an era of rebirth for the cultural institution when artists, activists, city officials, and volunteers from the community came together to revive it. Together they created momentum that ultimately led to major funding donations, an expansion in the museum’s permanent collection, and the acquisition of 350 Montgomery, which the city donated to the museum in 1993.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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