Bayonne art gallery rallies public support ahead of zoning hearing

The Dollhaus II wants nothing more than to stay in Bayonne and exhibit 'outsider' art in peace

The last art gallery in Bayonne is looking for public support ahead of a zoning hearing that may determine its future.

The Dollhaus II at 23 Cottage Street is owned by curator and artist Emma Louise. In an interview with the Bayonne Community News, Emma Louise described the precarious situation the art gallery finds itself in after operating without issue in Bayonne for four years so far.

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From Brooklyn to Bayonne, now possibly elsewhere?

Emma Louise opened the gallery in Bayonne after moving to Hudson County from Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the original Dollhaus art gallery was located. First she did a lot of work in Jersey City before discovering Bayonne and setting up shop there for good in 2017, holding monthly exhibits featuring “outsider” art ever since.

The city took issue with the zoning of the property in July of 2021, claiming it was not applicable for its current use after citing the gallery’s signature pink mannequins temporarily attached to the storefront as improper signage. Faced with threats of being shut down permanently if she did not obtain a land use permit and land use variance, Emma Louise sought to address the issues with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

In the meantime, Emma Louise needed help to cover the high cost of the application and other related fees through a GoFundMe fundraiser. She eventually raised much of the money that the Dollhaus II needed, and an application was submitted before the board to address the issue of the mannequins.

Emma Louise is seeking a Certificate of Non-Conformity from the board pursuant to the Municipal Land Use Law to allow for the continued use of the property as a commercial gallery. The application first appeared on the board’s agenda in January of this year.

Attorney Paul Weeks, who represents Emma Louise and the Dollhaus II, asked for the adjournment from month to month, according to the board. In July, when Weeks sought another postponement, that time to August, the board carried the hearing until September but under the stipulation that the application would be tried at that meeting or dismissed with prejudice.

The zoning hearing will be held on September 19 at 6 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall at 630 Avenue C. For more information, go to bayonnenj.org.

Attorney Paul Weeks, who legally represents Dollhaus II, and frequent performer at the art gallery Iggy Berlin. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

The Dollhaus II fights to stay open on Cottage Street

While the board pinned the hold up on the Dollhaus II and their attorney, Emma Louise disputed that version of events. In response, she said that she “has never stopped a hearing” and has been ready.

While the city argues that the zoning of the building is residential, Emma Louise points to the commercial nature of that part of Cottage Street. She said the building has been a commercial use since the 1960s, peppered in with other commercial uses on the otherwise residential block.

“I’m sandwiched between commercial buildings,” she said. “The block between Broadway and Orient, is 70 percent commercial, with a restaurant, bar, a construction company, and an awning company as well… It was always commercial, I rented it as a commercial space.” 

Because of this, Emma Louise argues that a Certificate of Non-Conformity should not be needed. However, she is still seeking it from the board because she wants the gallery to remain on Cottage Street in Bayonne.

“This is our home,” she said. “This is where we got our name. This is where artists know where to come and apply to have shows and where people come on weekends to see art.” 

Moving the Dollhaus II from its Cottage Street location to elsewhere in the city is not an option to Emma Louise. If the board doesn’t grant the certificate, she said the gallery will likely close. 

“If you lay roots in a town, and you fall in love with the town, and then this happens, and you can’t operate, then you’re left with no other choice really,” she said. “We’re not on a main street, so you have to be interested in art to realize there is an outsider art gallery on the peninsula… The other gallery did close on Broadway… At some point, somebody said that Dollhaus II could move there since it probably has the land use… Why on Earth would we move onto a very busy street… and move from a place that we renovated from a hole in the wall to a destination?” 

The art gallery is a safe haven for whimsical and fantastical art and the people who enjoy it. Photo courtesy of Emma Louise.

An LGBTQ+ friendly art and cultural institution 

The Bridge Art Gallery closed in Bayonne in July after it expanded to a new location in Wilmington, Delaware with plans for another location in Kearny, making the Dollhaus II the last art gallery in Bayonne. This gallery closing months after the other would mark the loss of not only the last art institution in the city, but one that specializes in uplifting “outsider” artists. 

In the four years that Dollhaus II has been open, the art gallery has hosted new shows each month. Emma Louise said that new and local artists from the area put on month-long exhibits, with the gallery providing a space often featuring outside artists.

“We deal with outsider artists and lot of new artists as well,” she said. “Young artists come and want to show their work, and we’re not closed off to that… Just show us your work, and if it is what we think will fit into an outsider art gallery scene, and if there’s talent there, I’ll spot it. And there’s a lot of talent in Bayonne.” 

The Dollhaus II is also a hub for LGBTQ+ artists and is supportive of the community, according to Emma Louise. She said: “It was just naturally that way, that we are an LGBTQ+ gallery. It’s just what we are.” 

With the Dollhaus II open to showing any talented artists they approve of, especially new artists, the local art community loses an opportunity to showcase work without many barriers if the gallery closes. 

“There would be nowhere else to do that here, especially with the other gallery closed,” she said. “There will not be an art gallery in Bayonne. There won’t be a gallery for young, aspiring artists that actually have a name for themselves, as well as the artists that we have shown and that we plan to show… We represent a community of artists that don’t have a place to go.” 

It would also mean one less thing to do in a city where residents already complain there is not enough to do. Many point to the lack of movie theaters and other recreation as an issue in Bayonne, and adding a lack of art galleries to the list seems to only further their point.

“We’ve been here for four years,” she said. “The art community now knows about us, and the artists, and fans, and supporters, and people who are curious about art. We’ve already established ourselves and been fully active in the community. And it’s really over one ticket officer who went to City Hall who didn’t like the look of our temporary art display of the pink mannequins, and then the ball rolled into now being put before a board.” 

The shows at the Dollhaus II attract locals of all ages to enjoy the visually captivating and mentally stimulating exhibits. Photo courtesy of Emma Louise.

Locals largely support the ‘outsider’ art gallery

Of the feedback Emma Louise has heard from residents about the pink mannequins and the art gallery in general, she said an overwhelming majority of comments are positive and in support of the Dollhaus II. During Halloween, the gallery dons a spooky theme and gives out British candy, an ode to Emma Louise’s upbringing.

“It’s always 90 percent of people in support,” she said. “Then there’s this very small, and they tend to be quite trollish… And it’s funny, since that little bit of chattering on social media, more people have come to the gallery.” 

Emma Louise said that negative chatter by few on social media drove curious people to the gallery to discover that it was exactly that, an art gallery. She said that overall, most people support the Dollhaus II, which is unimposing compared to its neighboring businesses. 

“We’re just a little gallery on a noisy street that has only ever showed on Friday through Sunday,” she said. “When we have an opening, it’s pretty much done by nine o’clock. Whereas, everything else on the street keeps going… Next door, they start at six o’clock in the morning, with huge grinders. The street gets piled up with trucks… Then the bar, of course, is open much later. So as far as us making any public disturbance, that hasn’t happened.” 

However, the gallery has not even been holding its lowkey shows since it has been closed after the end of its last exhibit, “GLAMONSTERS” by Brian “Soigné” Wilson. The pink mannequins have also been taken down from the storefront. 

“We actually closed because it was getting a bit too stressful,” she said. “We close after Soigné’s show. Prior to that, we were only opening very minimally, by appointment only. We kept it on the emailing list of people. We kept it quite tight and small.” 

A promotional image circulated by the Dollhaus II to get the word out about “The Pink Mannequins Public Hearing.” Image courtesy of Emma Louise.

‘Heavy burden on a small business’

Emma Louise said that the gallery did not want to face any violations that the Dollhaus II was threatened with prior to the hearing. Any fines would be a heavy burden for the small business, already belabored by the fees needed to apply for the application for the Certificate of Non-Conformity from the board. 

“We have something in Bayonne that enhances the neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t make a lot of money, so it’s kind of a pain of a situation because now we’re not making any money… We’re just a bunch of artists that just show our work and get people to come to the gallery… We work very hard and then we’re also open these regular hours so that people can just walk in off the street.” 

Looking to September 19, Emma Louise is hoping people come out to support the gallery at the zoning hearing. She hopes the board will hear her out and grant the proper land use permit and variance to stay open at its current location on Cottage Street with its signature pink mannequins.

Ahead of the hearing, which she has dubbed “The Pink Mannequins Public Hearing,” Emma Louise has been trying to get out the word to the community. Part of her efforts include a social media campaign, with posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and more imploring followers to attend the meeting in support of Dollhaus II.

“We’ve been telling everyone,” she said. “The Dollhaus artists and our mascot will be there. We’ve made 30 t-shirts with our mascot on them, so anyone who comes out gets a t-shirt. We have contacted all of our artists, all of our fans, all of the community that supports us… We’ve gone door to door personally and handed residents some information about the gallery and when the hearing is. We’ve contacted a couple of our famous artists, and we hope that they can show up. We have e-mail lists of a few thousand, but who knows who’s actually going to show up on a Monday night at six o’clock… Sadly, this format is not on Zoom, which alienates a lot of people who are still very scared to go to the hearing in person. We also have people who want to support the gallery that aren’t even in the country.” 

Emma Louise takes the temporary pink mannequin art display down from in front of the Dollhaus II after the initial threat of violations in July of 2021. Photo by Daniel Israel.

Certificate of Non-Conformity or bust?

Emma Louise continued, noting the serious implications the hearing could have for the art gallery: “We are representing an outsider LGBTQ+ gallery. If they don’t give us the land permit, we have to close… We have two great shows coming up… It would be a real heartbreaker, and the work that I have done personally for four years, and the thousands of people that I’ve brought here to Bayonne, and all the artists I’ve shown here, and all our future ideas for shows as well, all of it would be over.” 

Despite everything, Emma Louise remains optimistic about the public hearing. She said: “We’re hoping they say something like, you can stay open but you can’t hang the pink mannequins outside. If that would be the case, we’ll do as we’re told.” 

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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