How could I not be excited? The Centre Pompidou, Paris’ premier museum for modern and contemporary art, is coming to a venue near me—a mere 10 miles south of La Maison Rosenbaum. As a long–time resident of Fort Lee, NJ (and a native New Yorker), I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw this headline earlier this month:
Here’s the “Before” photo—the currently down-at-the-heels “Pathside Building” in which the Pomp will romp:
And here’s the “After” picture—a rendering of what it may look like after architect Jason Long, a partner in the New York office of OMA (the firm founded in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas), gets his hands on it:
“Pompidou x Jersey City”—the name of the planned new offspring of the 44-year-old Paris mothership (designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers)—sounds more like an oxymoron than a marriage made in heaven (or in a Woody Allen movie). The renovated, repurposed 1912 building is expected to reopen as an art museum in early 2024, defying skeptics like Allen, who famously said (in “Sleeper”) that “a certain intelligence governs our universe, except in certain parts of New Jersey.”
As a loyal New Jerseyan, I’m trying to squelch my own customary skepticism about such international museum undertakings, but the pronouncements about this project on the Hudson’s Left Bank (also its Right Bank—the river can’t make up its mind about which way to flow) have been high on hype, low on specifics. My efforts to extract more details about what’s planned have been mostly met by: “It’s too early to say.”
One thing that I do know is that I like what I’ve seen of Jason Long’s work. As CultureGrrl readers may remember, Koolhaas’ firm designed Cornell University’s Milstein Hall for architectural studies, to which I gave a rave review in 2011. I didn’t know at that time that Long was the architect overseeing that project for Koolhaas. (Full disclosure: I graduated as an English major from the university that is home to Milstein Hall.)
Here’s what Long told me about where things currently stand in his effort to “reinvent, develop and activate Jersey City Journal Square’s Pathside Building, which directly adjoins the Journal Square Transportation Center and the Journal Square station of the PATH rail transit system” (commuter trains to Manhattan):
We are just about to begin the design phase now that the involvement of the Centre Pompidou is official. We didn’t want to get too far into the design before they could be part of the process, so we haven’t yet determined anything in detail about plans for interiors or exteriors. We do intend to preserve the best elements of the main brick façade, though, and think that the preservation of the building is great for both the museum and Journal Square.
The building has good ceiling heights and clear structural spans for use as flexible gallery space, and we think there is also potential for the roof to become a new open space for Journal Square with a view out to Downtown Jersey City and Lower Manhattan.
Here’s an interior view (which brings to mind MASS MoCA’s vast industrial spaces):
Here’s mock-up of a floor plan for the Jersey City project:
And here’s a schematic cross section (including a roof garden):
Clearly there’s much yet to be done: “As we are just beginning the design phase,” Long told me, “we will be working with the city to establish the costs in the months ahead. The Mayor has mentioned an estimated range of $10 million to $30 million. We’re looking forward to sharing more about the design as we get further along.”
Can they pull off this improbable turnaround in the turnpike state? Here’s Mayor Steven Fulop‘s upbeat take:
“When the Pathside Building was slated for high-rise development, we saw a unique opportunity to change its trajectory to better serve the City as a museum and community center. Today, that commitment is not only coming to fruition, but we’ve raised the bar with a tremendous international partnership that will bring world-class opportunities to Jersey City.
Back in April 2018, Jersey City had announced in a press release that the Pathside Building was to be “transformed into the home of a new Jersey City Museum and community center, as the Fulop Administration continues to bring new life to Journal Square through an emphasis on local arts and culture.” Now it’s switched its local focus to an international one, in what the Pompidou calls “an exclusive North American partnership with Jersey City [emphasis added].” There are other Pompidous in Brussels, Shanghai and Málaga, Spain (not to mention its French outpost in Metz), but it looks like Jersey City has a lock on this continent’s Pompidou franchise (at least for now).
So why was “disbelief” my first reaction to this announcement (as stated at the top of this post)? My doubts about the NJ Pompidou are consistent with my general skepticism (grounded in past experience) about plans for international outposts of major museums. In an opinion piece for Apollo magazine, I answered “Yes” to the question: “Should we be cynical about international museum franchises?” and I enumerated their various drawbacks and stumbling blocks.
On a local level, I know I shouldn’t disparage my home state’s cultural creds, but Jersey City’s track record as an arts destination has been spotty at best. Even its mayor acknowledged its cultural deficiencies: This CBS news video from eight months ago quoted Mayor Fulop (at 0:48) as saying that Jersey City was “one of the most underfunded areas for arts in the entire state” (a shortfall that he hoped to reverse). As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the municipality’s Jersey City Museum foundered and eventually closed due to its meager audience and inadequate funding. (I visited it once, attracted by its Joan Semmel show.) Only efforts by the late Tom Sokolowski saved that museum’s collection from being dispersed: As I wrote here, he arranged for it to be acquired by Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Museum, New Brunswick.
Another Jersey City art facility—Mana Contemporary, in a sprawling former tobacco warehouse (which I wrote about briefly here)—has been engagingly eclectic and experimental in its approach, but remains a blip on the radar screen of the mainstream artworld. I visited there for one of its more ambitious projects—Making Art Dance, an engaging 2015 exhibition, curated by Jeffrey Deitch, of artist-designed costumes, props and backdrops for performances of Karole Armitage‘s contemporary ballets.
While there, I also explored the Richard Meier Model Museum, housed by the architect at Mana:
When I asked why the Pompidou had fixed its sight on Jersey City, Timothée Nicot, that museum’s press officer for exhibitions and international projects, explained:
From what we can see here, Jersey City is incredibly promising. First, because of the extraordinary youth [of the population] of this city; its diversity and cultural vitality, too: Jersey City is a unique melting pot of a city, long known as “America’s Golden Door.” Mayor Fulop, Director of Cultural Affairs Christine Goodman and their teams have recently shown adamant commitment to the arts (notably the living arts), and we truly appreciate this, especially in the context of the current crisis.
In a way, a parallel could be drawn with another profoundly innovative project [my link, not his] that we have been designing in France, in Massy. Massy too is a city only miles away from a world-class cultural epicenter, reinventing itself in recent years. Both Jersey City and Massy have been blooming, with incredible energies and potential to boost cultural life (locally and beyond), especially among young people traditionally forgotten by larger cultural institutions.
But Nicot wasn’t yet ready to discuss specific plans:
The museum’s being due to open in 2024, we still have some time ahead of us to design this cultural offering, and thus have little to say about it at this very early stage. But we might issue new information this fall—hopefully with more detailed content about both the building renovation process and a first outline of the events.
Similarly undefined is the crucial matter where will the money for this nascent art facility will come from. According to OMA’s Jason Long:
The funding will come from a variety of sources including city, state and private funds.
Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione, Jersey City’s press secretary, added this:
The City has committed to a phased up approach of $6 million throughout the different project phases, from conception to fully operational in 2024, and we think the cost to the City will be a fraction of this as most of these dollars will be offset by ticket sales and we are exploring a special surcharge on new high-rise buildings in Journal Square to offset the cost to taxpayers. Additionally, for every $1 spent on nonprofit arts organizations and related spending, $33.33 is directly infused back into the local economy (source: ArtPride NJ/NJSCA).
Zachary Small has more details here for Curbed NJ.
Whether the envisioned economic benefit will become reality remains to be seen. I’d certainly welcome a chance to enjoy, close at hand, rotating selections from the Pompidou’s superlative holdings and what I hope will be incisive curatorial interpretations of international modern and contemporary art. Although I’m frequently in Manhattan (or was, pre-pandemic), some of my friends and neighbors (especially the elderly) are apprehensive about crossing the river to Manhattan but would welcome easy access to cultural riches on their home turf.
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