The last art gallery in Bayonne, the Dollhaus II at 23 Cottage Street, will remain in the city after an emotional public hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Originally from London, Emma Louise opened the gallery in Bayonne after moving to Hudson County from Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the original Dollhaus art gallery was located. She did work in Jersey City before discovering Bayonne and setting up shop there for good in 2017, holding monthly exhibits featuring “outsider” art ever since.
In July of 2021, the city’s Zoning Department took issue with the zoning of the property, claiming it was not applicable for its current land use after citing the gallery’s signature pink mannequins temporarily attached to the storefront as improper signage. Faced with hefty fines and threats of being shut down permanently if she did not obtain proper permits and address the signage situation, Emma Louise sought to solve the issues with the Zoning Board. She took the pink mannequins down, eventually closed the gallery, and raised thousands of dollars to apply for a zoning certificate from the board.
While the application to rectify the zoning first appears on the board’s January 2022 agenda, it was adjourned from month to month for some time. In July, the board carried the hearing to September, but under the stipulation that the application would be heard at that meeting or dismissed with prejudice since it had been on the agenda for over a year.
Long-awaited hearing happens at last
The Zoning Board finally held a public hearing on the matter at its September 19 meeting. The zoning certificate grandfathers the Dollhaus II into the current residential zoning of the area since the property was commercial before regulations were enacted.
At the meeting, Chairman Clifford Adams noted that the public hearing would focus on the zoning issue with the art gallery property, not the signage issue with the gallery’s pink mannequins. Paul Weeks, attorney for the Dollhaus II, clarified that Emma Louise was 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 art gallery.
Weeks, who said he grew up in the neighborhood, testified that the property has long been a commercial space since 1959, echoing previous statements by Emma Louise. He said the investigation of the property’s history yielded evidence of the building’s commercial nature, including: tax records, the property deed, the land use of surrounding properties, and interviews with the current property owner Beverly Ortega.
Afterwards, planner and architect on behalf of the Dollhaus II, Steve Kawalek, gave testimony to the board that the art gallery exists on the first floor of a two-story mixed-use residential and commercial attached structure. The building used to be the commercial headquarters for the former Dial Products Co. that operated until approximately 2016, with an apartment on the second floor.
“According to the SPL Portal, which is the city’s property portal, the building is listed there as a 4A commercial structure,” Kawalek said. “City records already indicate that the building is a commercial structure… For many years going back into the 1950s, this was the long-time base of operations for a company called Dial Products, which manufactured and designed electronic components for use on ships… This facility was used for their designers and as a showroom and for government inspectors to come and have meetings and visit, and things of that nature.”
Since 2017, the space has been commercially leased to the Dollhaus II as an art gallery, and the building layout remains largely unchanged, Kawalek said. He noted the gallery doesn’t require any parking since it occupies less than 2,000 square feet, only totaling 1,600 square feet.
Commercial history of Cottage Street explained
Kawalek asked the board to grant the zoning certificate “given the not only beneficial nature of the business, but also the long commercial history of the site.” He said this portion of Cottage Street is “decidedly” commercial in character, being home to: an awning company; a construction company; a transmission shop; and a restaurant, among others.
“This is arguably the least intense commercial use on the block, with very relatively low foot traffic,” Kawalek said. “As the only remaining art gallery in Bayonne, I do believe that it offers substantial and unique and valuable benefits.”
Ortega then confirmed everything said by Kawalek. She testified: “My father had this company and he produced these electromagnetic devices which were not made on site. The actual space of 23 Cottage Street was his office, where he had a showroom and his work was actually full government. Everything he did was for naval supply. And he had government inspectors come in and that space was his office where he had his meetings… He passed away in 2016, and everything was very minimized at that point.”
After Ortega’s testimony, Emma Louise testified to answer some other questions from the board. In response to questions from Commissioners Arrigo De Ros, Joseph Piniero, and Joseph McCourt, she noted that: the attendance for opening receptions of art exhibits at the gallery ranges from 10 to 35; the hours sometimes include Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., but are generally Friday from 2 to 9 p.m., Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 2 to 9 p.m.; admissions are free; and the gallery has liability insurance.
Explaining what “outsider” art encompassed, Emma Louise said: “Traditionally, an ‘outsider’ artist is when you don’t have formal training, you tend to have not gone to art school or studied an artistic field.” When asked why she opened in the city, she added: “I love Bayonne. It’s a wonderful peninsula and I had been looking for a space for quite a long time since I’ve closed my gallery. I took the light rail to 8th Street and just fell in love.”
Support for art gallery on display at hearing
After testimony concluded, about a dozen residents and members of the public praised Emma Louise and spoke in support of the board granting the zoning certificate to the Dollhaus II during the public comment portion. None spoke against it. Ahead of the hearing, Emma Louise had been rallying the public to attend the hearing in support of the art gallery. The attendance was probably the most the board had seen in some time, with zoning meetings usually being devoid of any crowd.
“The first time I met Emma was also the first time I met Chuck Wepner,” said Jacqueline Mancino, a Bayonne resident since 2019. “There was an ‘outsider’ artist named Mike Saviello that was having a show at her gallery and the whole exhibit was just paintings of Chuck Wepner… Chuck was there with his wife, which was amazing. I met Emma and couldn’t believe she was in Bayonne. Nothing against Bayonne, it’s just that she was so different and awesome. She contributes so much to this community and takes part in this community as well… There aren’t a lot of places for people to go other than bars. And if the gallery had to close, it would be a tragedy for so many people.”
Caryn La Grecia, a photographer and former secretary for the now-“faltered” Bayonne Art Circle who has lived in Bayonne most of her whole life, said the local art scene has shrunk following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There used to be Bee’s Art Gallery, which has left and moved to Pennsylvania,” La Grecia said of the former gallery at 916 Broadway. “The Bridge Art Gallery has closed down [at 199 Broadway], they’re now in Delaware. There used to be art shows at BayOhm Yoga at [494 Avenue C], but that’s no longer in existence… Emma is a very, very big asset to my community. I live in that community and I love going to her gallery and love going to her shows. We need culture in this city… All the art galleries are dying… The art scene is dwindling where at one point before the pandemic it was thriving. Emma is the last gallery standing and we’d like to keep it that way. And maybe in the future, branch out.”
“It’s not just about putting art on the wall,” said Tonya Knudsen, an artist who recently showed at the Dollhaus II in December of 2021. “When you work with Emma, she works with the artist to create a space, a story, a place you want to be in. When you go in, it’s a place where you forget about everything outside. You get a new experience, and that’s rare… You’re lucky to have her here. I just wanted you to know you have something very special.”
Public highlights pros of the Dollhaus II
Michael Pope, an artist who has worked with Emma Louise for over 25 years, added: “‘Outsider’ art does refer to the fact that many of us are not educated formally in the styles that we’re working in, but it also means that we’re outside a lot of what is perceived as the art world… Keep this gallery open, not just for her, not just for business reasons, …but because it is a home for us as ‘outsider’ artists. It’s a community that expands far beyond the borders of Bayonne… She’s creating this new community here that all of us, including you guys, are a part of.”
Vera Hawkins, another artist who offered overwhelming support for Emma Louise, said: “She is a professional and she is also an incredible human being. When I first met her, I was a trauma survivor. I think it’s important to mention that, not just through her art, but also the business that she conducts and her personality, that she has impacted my life and it really helped me. And I believe that is what she is doing with the artists and the people that visit her gallery.”
Iggy Berlin, a performance artist and the gallery’s mascot dressed in full Dollhaus II attire, also asked the board to approve Emma Louise’s application to keep the gallery in Bayonne.
“I think we should all ask, could we possibly have too much art?” Berlin said. “Now imagine going to art gallery or a museum, in this case a gallery, and seeing a painting or a sculpture and having a free thought that has nothing to do with the Kardashians or anything that we have been told on CNN or Fox News. And imagine meeting someone like me at an opening, and getting the chance to talk to a performance artist, someone who does this for a living and is commercially successful. And someone that has a home at the Dollhaus II, where I feel comfortable going, where I feel comfortable meeting other artists, and where I feel comfortable meeting an audience member from Bayonne that has never been to the gallery before.”
Other Bayonne residents, including Diane Policastro, Eric Evan Bleich, and Heather Ann Shepard, also joined the chorus of voices vocalizing support for the Dollhaus II, as well as Farah Nuradeen, owner of the former Nuradeen Gallery in Jersey City. Staple artists of the Dollhaus II, including Brian “Soigné” Wilson and Maidenfed, were also in attendance in support. Following the public comments, Weeks concluded that the testimony shows the property has been commercial since before zoning regulations changed, which he argued warranted granting the zoning certificate.
Commissioners unanimously approve application
The board went into a closed caucus to discuss their decision, meaning that no comments could be made while the board discussed the matter to themselves although still publicly at the dais. During the closed caucus, Adams noted that the testimony was “compelling” that the property has been commercial, even if Ortega’s father briefly stopped conducting business there. He added that “having an art gallery in Bayonne supports the fabric of the community. And it’s something that should be cherished actually, and given the opportunity to thrive.”
Vice Chairman Nicholas DiLullo agreed: “I don’t see anything in the record that indicates this is not a commercial use before and that there was abandonment of that commercial use.”
Secretary Louis Lombari also concurred. He added: “Apparently, you’re a staple in the community and a staple in the art world.”
De Ros felt the same way: “I’d like to thank everybody for coming out and supporting Ms. Emma Louise. It’s rare that we see that in this building. One of the issues I have with this application is there’s no parking lot to support the gallery. But I’m in favor of this.”
McCourt was also in favor of the application, noting: “The gallery seems to do nothing but good for the community.” Piniero was also on board, as well as Commissioner Cindy Sisk-Galvin, who said was “glad that the art gallery will remain in Bayonne.”
The audience clapped in excitement when it realized there was going to be a unanimous vote in favor of the application. After the clapping ceased, Adams joked they still needed to vote and could change their mind before the board members present ultimately exited the closed caucus session and voted unanimously to grant the Certificate of Non-Conformity to Emma Louise.
The Dollhaus II can now open again on Cottage Street. After the vote, Emma Louise invited the commissioners to the next art opening, entitled Fever Dreams by SlaughterDK to open on Friday, October 7.
On to the next art show
Decked from head to toe in bright pink for the hearing, Emma Louise told the Bayonne Community News outside City Hall after the hearing that she was “tickled pink” by the board’s affirmative decision.
“It was amazing and honestly it was unexpected,” she said. “I feel that because of the support of the people, and maybe some of the work that I did, I feel that the board was genuinely blown away… I don’t know if just me on my own would have got such a decision. I felt there was a lot of press, there was a lot of people, I did a lot of hard work, a lot of wrangling, and we had a lot of support.”
In response to the outpouring of love and support by the community experienced at the hearing, Emma Louise said she was moved beyond belief.
“Hearing everyone’s opinion on what I do for the community was kind of amazing,” she said. “They spoke on a lot of things that I don’t really think about because I’m in a bubble when I have a show. I’ve got to build the show, promote the show, and everything else, so I don’t really think of the bigger picture. I don’t really think of how I’m getting people to believe in art and life, and giving them something to look forward to and a platform too. There were some really big issues discussed by the public, and it was really very emotional.”
After a year in a weird limbo before the board, Emma Louise finally feels welcome in Bayonne again. While some say “Good things never last in Bayonne,” they were wrong this time. And Emma Louise wants to take that and another negative saying about Bayonne and turn it upside down: “My next t-shirt is going to be ‘If it’s from Bayonne, bring it home.’” Emma Louise coin the phrase, which is a play on the negative phrase uttered about the city that goes “If it’s from Bayonne, leave it alone,” during the stay-at-home order phase of the COVID-19 pandemic to sell art during virtual auctions.
Now that the gallery has solved its zoning woes, Emma Louise might see about working with the respective city officials and professionals to possibly acquire the necessary application approvals to rehang the pink mannequins in front of the gallery. But in the meantime, the gallery can reopen and she is hard at work planning her next exhibit for October.
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.