The Jersey City Museum will reopen to the public at the end of this month after being closed and in limbo since December 2010. This development comes just months after the museum building on Montgomery Street narrowly averted foreclosure after being sold to a local hospital in December of last year.
These developments could signal a new chapter in the museum’s history, which recently saw the arts institution facing financial trouble and possible extinction.
With the help of volunteers, the museum’s current board of directors is planning what Board Treasurer Mark S. Rodrick calls “a quiet reopening” on Saturday, June 30. The yet-to-be-titled exhibit, he said, “is going to be curated anonymously by a few curators and will essentially focus on treasures from the collection…We’ve purposely kept this quiet because we didn’t want to involve the bureaucracy that is Jersey City.”
City funding for the museum will be contingent on the completion of a long-sought-after inventory of the collection.
Since the museum no longer has a full-time staff, the exhibit will be open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays only, at least for now.
“This is, in my opinion, our last stand,” said Rodrick. “This is, perhaps, our last opportunity to do something nice and enjoyable to gain some forward momentum for the museum.”
Despite the turn of events, however, the city’s biggest priority for the museum – tracking and documenting the location and condition of the museum’s art collection – remains largely unfulfilled, according to city sources.
‘Ability to reorganize’
This is a brighter future than the one the institution faced just a year ago when the museum – which is incorporated as private nonprofit and operated by a board of directors – was on the verge of being foreclosed by Sovereign Bank.
After the United Way of Hudson County backed away from initial interest in buying the museum’s building at 350 Montgomery St., the building was later purchased by LibertyHealth System, the owner of Jersey City Medical Center. According to the Hudson County Board of Taxation, LibertyHealth bought the property for $900,000 in December 2011.
“We’ve taken the second and third floors for office space. We’re moving 140 jobs from Secaucus and elsewhere back to Jersey City,” said LibertyHealth spokesman Mark Rabson. “We can ensure the public that the air conditioning is on and, before it got warmer, the heat was on. So the artwork wasn’t just sitting in the building.”
PSE&G had briefly cut power to the building in 2010 due to unpaid utility bills, which led to fears the museum’s art collection was being stored in less-than-ideal conditions.
“The hospital has been wonderful to work with,” said Rodrick. “We were not performing on our mortgage and on our utilities because of the financial crisis. Wall Street West was no longer able to fund us, and the City of Jersey City was unable to fund us…The big news here is the collection is safe, the hospital has provided us with a lease, and there’s 24-hour security at the building. So the works have never been better kept. We now have the ability to reorganize because we don’t have all the costs associated with a gigantic mortgage and utilities.”
In addition to losing much of its funding from private sources, the museum saw its city funding drop from $625,000 in FY 2009 to $500,000 the following year.
LibertyHealth has given the Jersey City Museum a two-year lease to use the building’s first floor, which also includes a 152-seat theater, for exhibits.
Still waiting for an inventory
Despite this progress, the museum will still need long-term funding to keep its doors open, rehire staff, restore regular hours of operation, and host regular events. The museum is not expected to receive significant funding from the city in the 2012 municipal budget, which was introduced in March but has yet to be adopted. If the museum remains open into 2013, however, its board of directors will likely request financial support from the city.
However, according to city sources, future funding for the arts institution will be contingent on the completion of a long-sought-after inventory of the museum’s collection.
“The inventory has been done,” said Rodrick.
But according to Maryanne Kelleher, director of the city’s Division of Cultural Affairs, a true inventory of the collection has not been completed.
“For the past year, the board’s focus has been on the sale of the museum building…So our requests for an inventory were placed on the back burner,” said Kelleher. “The City of Jersey City requested a complete inventory from the Jersey City Museum board early last year when the future of the museum was uncertain. They provided two books, ‘First Look’ and the ‘August Will Catalog’…The publications provided are nice snapshots of artwork…but they do not represent a full physical inventory of the collection. A physical inventory would list the item, include a photograph, description, the specific storage location, notes on the condition, and acquisition information. This is important information to have in the event that artwork is lent to another institution or needs to be moved for any reason.”
Kelleher said the city has tried to document what it can.
The Jersey City Museum grew out of the Jersey City Free Public Library and many of the museum’s first artworks were initially given to or acquired by the library. These artworks were then given to the Jersey City Museum when it separated from the library in 1987 and became an independent institution. Since these art pieces were originally housed at city libraries, some information is already known about them. Working with Priscilla Gardner, director of the Jersey City Free Public Library, and Cynthia Harris, manager of the Main Branch New Jersey Room, the city has been able to document the artworks that were given to the museum in 1987 and their acquisition history.
The physical condition and specific location of these art pieces, however, is not known, nor is there any information regarding pieces that were acquired by the museum after 1987.
The city is now pressing the board to allow a certified, insured art handler to conduct a full physical inventory of the collection. City officials are currently in the process of obtaining financial quotes from arts professionals to gauge how much it will cost to conduct a physical inventory. One quote has already been obtained from the Jersey City-based professional arts center Mana Contemporary.
“We hope to have three competitive quotes to give to the City Council within 30 days,” said Kelleher. “Should the City Council approve a vendor to conduct the inventory, I estimate that it will take the vendor one to three months to complete. Obtaining a full and complete inventory remains the top priority of the City of Jersey City. Both residents and City Council members have made it clear that this is also their priority. It is our belief that a full physical inventory must be conducted in order to properly maintain, insure, and safeguard the heritage collection for years to come.”
Once the inventory is completed, the museum board, which shrank when its future was in jeopardy, may need to be reconstituted.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.