Emma Louise, owner of the Dollhaus II art gallery, sought to make the front of her space on Cottage Street embrace the essence of her gallery. So she installed two pink mannequins adjacent to the front door, evoking a dollhouse.
According to Louise, the mannequins were put up over a three-day period from July 9 to 11.
“As the mannequins were being installed, everyone enjoyed it,” Louise said. “The whole street stopped, and everyone loved it.”
But the art installation was short lived. Days after the mannequins, in yoga poses, were installed, Louise was told by the city she was in violation of building code and needed to take them down “by the end of the day.” That was Monday morning, July 12.
“I called them immediately asking what’s going on,” Louise said. “They were like: ‘You have pink, naked mannequins hanging.’”
According to Louise, the mannequins were spotted by a city employee while giving out tickets on Cottage Street. A formal complaint was then filed against Dollhaus II, she said.
Louise was told the issue was that they were not considered a sign, and not permitted under city building code and other regulations. She couldn’t just write Dollhaus II on the mannequins and call it a sign because signs need to be approved by the city through the planning and or zoning boards.
“They’re flush to the building,” Louise said. “They’re not on the sidewalk. They’re not sticking out. They’re flush to underneath the property.”
Was there another issue, she wondered.
“The language in between it was they were pink, they were naked,” Louise said. “Is that the official rule? I’m confused.”
Land use issues
As a result of her phone call to the city, Louise was then hit with a bigger problem: The zoning for the lot was not commercial, but residential. Louise said that she was “apparently using the wrong land.”
“I have a commercial lease for an art gallery,” she said. “I’m sandwiched between two commercial businesses. Basically, I’m surrounded by commercial buildings.”
But Louise said she was told the property is zoned for residential and that she does not have permission from the city to have an art gallery on the property, never mind to install mannequins.
“It’s been a serious situation where I’m like, ‘Really Bayonne?’,” Louise said. “I’m on Cottage Street. There’s loud commercial buildings. It’s a very active street. The businesses start up at 6 a.m. Why am I being harassed?”
The city sent her a cease and desist letter, ordering her to close the gallery, until she acquires the proper land use permit.
“If I don’t have permission to use the land, then why do I have an art gallery there?” Louise said. She added that the property has a history of commercial use: “It’s been a manufacturing place since the ’70s.”
In the meantime, the city told Louise she had to close Dollhaus II until the zoning board rectifies the issue. She has to apply for a land use permit before the board in order to reopen the gallery, and a land use variance if she seeks to reinstall the mannequins.
Is this the end?
If she didn’t take the mannequins down and close the gallery, Louise said she would face fines that would accrue each day that could total in the thousands. Not being able to afford the fees, Louise brokenheartedly took down the mannequins.
As she seeks to rectify the issue with the zoning board, the gallery will temporarily close, with its future uncertain.
“At the end of the day, it is going to cost thousands for me to do this,” Louise said. “Do I have thousands of dollars to do this? No, I don’t.”
But she has no other option.
“We will close down permanently if we don’t do this,” Louise said. “I have no other choice.”
The situation caused Louise to briefly ponder closing the Dollhaus II.
But after all the money, effort, and love Louise poured into the gallery, she plans to pursue the issue before the zoning board to keep the gallery open.
But the future of the gallery is still unclear. Louise said the city told her to look into leasing commercial properties nearby.
“They shut me down,” Louise said. “I got a cease and desist. It all started with the pink mannequins. The pink mannequins have offended one person that went to the city, and now I’m being harassed like this.”
Losing a cultural institution
One of two art galleries in Bayonne, the loss of the cultural institution would be a blow to the developing local art scene, Louise said.
It would also be detrimental to the artists who are currently holding exhibitions at the Dollhaus II or plan to. Rev. Jen Miller opened her show of her trippy, pastel, troll doll-infused paintings earlier this month. According to Louise, not only is this show now in danger, but also future shows, including a ten-person group show planned for the upcoming months.
“Really Bayonne? [Harassing] a little art gallery that doesn’t bother anyone, that brings local artists and famous artists to the middle of f*cking nowhere?,” Louise said. “Really, you’re going to come at me? We don’t make money. We don’t make thousands of dollars. We’re not like one of those businesses on Broadway.”
Some of the artists who have shown at Dollhaus II are from Bayonne, but many are from Brooklyn.
“I have brought so many people over to this place that have never stepped foot in here,” Louise said. “I’ve had some well known people come here. We bring people here. I’ve even thought of hiring a bus.”
Bad for the neighborhood
Louise said that people not only come to view the art, but also spend money at businesses nearby. Closing would be bad for the neighborhood, she said, especially when there are bigger problems the city is currently facing.
“Really, you’re closing down an art gallery when there’s a condo going up every other minute,” Louise said. “What’s here for artists?”
There’s not much to do in the city as it stands, she said. And closing an art gallery would hinder the city’s development.
“No one’s going to come to Bayonne,” Louise said.
The city hasn’t yet given Dollhaus II a violation. But the mannequins are down, and the gallery has been forced to close, with its fate in the hands of the zoning board.
That is, as long as Louise has the funds to pursue remedying the issue, which may be the next obstacle Dollhaus II must overcome to keep its doors open. Louise has set up an online fundraiser to help with the costs of the ordeal at www.gofundme.com/f/legal-city-of-bayonne-fees-to-reopen-gallery.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.