Unanswered questions about JC Museum
109-year-old institution faces uncertain future
by Ricardo Kaulessar
Reporter Staff Writer
May 16, 2010 | 6395 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Jersey City Museum is located on the corner of Montgomery and Monmouth streets in downtown Jersey City.
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The Jersey City Museum will hold its “ARTrageous on the Green” fundraiser in June, and the proceeds will go toward the museum’s general operations as the city’s major repository of art.

But will this event be enough to keep the museum operating?

Officials at the 109-year-old institution declined to answer questions about its future last week.

The museum, located on the corner of Monmouth and Montgomery streets, now opens only one day a week – Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Until this past April, it was also open Wednesdays through Fridays.

The Jersey City Museum dates back to 1901.

A March 30 letter from The Board of Trustees posted on the museum’s website stated that the museum cut back its hours as one of the “appropriate steps to reduce operating costs and manage expenses.” The letter also offered the public an opportunity to give financial support to the museum by attending the June 23 fundraiser in the Hamilton Square condominium building to contribute a “donation of $5, to a membership for $50, to a golf hole sponsorship of $5,000.”

What wasn’t mentioned in the letter was how long the new shortened schedule could be in effect, or if there were other cutbacks besides the operating hours. And how much money is needed to get the museum back to regular operations?

Information has come out in recent weeks suggesting the museum has a huge financial mountain to climb, made worse by the absence of an executive director and head curator. Some in the arts community believe the current obstacles can be overcome.

Museum with money issues

The Jersey City Museum has been in its current location, a restored municipal garage, since it opened in October of 2001. However, the museum had been based on the top floor of the Jersey City Public Library’s Main Branch on Jersey Avenue since 1901.

The museum is currently holding exhibits and events such as the ongoing “New Look, Same Great Taste!,” which shows museum acquisitions from the past 10 years, as well as a group show called “Hair Tactics” that explores hair as subject matter and medium.

During its history, the museum has been plagued by financial issues. The museum’s 2006 guide, “First Look: The Essential Guide to the Jersey City Museum,” noted that the museum was closed for at least 20 years due to lack of funds, from the mid-1950s until it reopened in 1976.

The recent problems with the museum have been attributed to a lack of funds. An article published last month in a local daily newspaper reported that the city had cut back its funding to the museum in this fiscal year’s budget from $625,000 to $500,000, a 20 percent decrease.

And since last July 1, because of funding cuts from the federal government, corporations, and foundations, the museum lost another $300,000.

More damning was an article posted last month on a New York-based blog called Art Fag City, which gave a detailed assessment of financial difficulties and other matters that have contributed to the museum’s current situation.

The April 28 article – which quotes from a letter sent to the writer by an unnamed “member of the museum’s staff” as well as other sources connected to the museum – made these allegations about events behind-the-scenes:

• The museum has not had an executive director in place since April, when the previous director, Laurene Buckley, was dismissed after only six months on the job for “failing to raise any money,” according to the blog.

• The museum has not had a full-time curator since 2009 when its former curator, Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, stepped down from the post.

• And the museum had problems meeting its payroll from July 2009 to March 2010.

Recommendations for a viable future

Nathan Sambul, chair of the Board of Trustees, was contacted last week about the future of the museum. A phone call to his home elicited a recorded message telling callers to reach him by e-mail or cell phone since he was “travelling.” Three other board members were contacted for this article including the board vice chair, James Kobak, a New York attorney, who provided Sambul’s e-mail address. The other two board members, Stephanie Panepinto and Benjamin Dineen, were contacted by phone but did not return calls.

Sambul eventually responded with a short letter by e-mail that stated in part, “We are in the midst of a number of activities and discussions to assure the viability of the Museum...We will keep you informed when we have concrete information to provide.”

Sambul failed to answer questions about how much money the museum will need to open more than one day a week, how many employees have been laid off, whether a new director will be hired, and how much debt the museum carries.

While the museum’s trustees were tight-lipped, supporters had much to say last week.

Charles Kessler believes what is needed to save the museum is a complete makeover of the museum’s function. Kessler, a downtown Jersey City resident for nearly 30 years with his wife Annie, has written about the arts for such publications as Arts in America and for his website, Left Bank Art Blog.

Kessler believes the museum can be viable again if it moves away from its “grandiose” mission established years ago of trying to bring arts education to a broad audience from the metropolitan area, and instead focus on attracting more of the local community.

“They need to tap into all the great creative people in the city, not just painters, but also people who do theater and music,” Kessler said. “Open up the museum as a community space that can even hold weddings and other social gatherings.”

However, Brendan Carroll, an artist and former museum employee from August 2006 until his layoff in March 2010, says while he is “deeply saddened” by the reduced museum hours, he thinks the museum is already on the right track by holding late night events every first Friday of the month with funding from the Target department store chain.

“I do not know what lies in store for the museum,” Carroll said in an e-mail. “I think one of the keys to survival is for the museum to continue working with strategic partners in the community.”

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