For many years the museum was housed in the sky-lit galleries on the Jersey City Public Library's fourth floor. Following a period of gradual decline, efforts to restore the museum's collections of American artwork and historical objects began in earnest in the 1980s.
In 2001, the museum opened the doors of its new home in the historic Van Vorst neighborhood at the corner of Montgomery and Monmouth streets downtown.
Since then, the new high-visibility location has helped the museum cement its place in the community - and the community has responded in kind, sending roughly 20,000 visitors last year alone.
"The growth has been astronomical in visitorship," says Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, curator for the museum. "Being in the library was great, but we didn't really have a street presence."
Marion Grzesiak, the museum's executive director, says the museum's growth has mirrored that of the entire city.
"It's become such a vibrant place," Grzesiak says. "It's called Wall Street West, the Gold Coast, but I think it's become a real urban environment for residents as well - a lively, vibrant, urban environment."
As the only full-service art and history museum in all of Hudson County, Jersey City Museum has as its mission the collection and presentation of high-quality contemporary art as well as the preservation of objects of historical value. Items on display run the gamut from the newest work from up-and-coming artists to century-old depictions of life in Hudson County during the Industrial Era.
The museum's permanent collection contains more than 20,000 individual pieces, including more than 300 paintings and works on paper by local illustrator and landscape painter August Will (1834-1910). The collection is rounded out with drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, maps, textiles, decorative arts and industrial objects of significance to the history of the region.
In the coming months, the permanent collection will provide the basis for a new exhibition called "Jersey City Interprets." Aranda-Alvarado says the exhibit will offer different points of view on objects from the museum's collection.
"We invited people from Jersey City politics, businessmen, students, art-lovers in general ... to write the object label that goes next to the artwork on the wall," Aranda-Alvarado says. "To really write about what in the object spoke to them."
Aranda-Alvarado says Jersey City Interprets has been an interesting twist on her usual task of seeking out and compiling objects for an exhibit.
"Reading these labels as a curator has been wonderful," she says.
Executive Director Marion Grzesiak contributed to Jersey City Interprets, writing the object label for Rafael Soyer's 1930s social realist work "The Seamstress." Grzesiak says she chose Soyer's depiction of an anonymous seamstress, not just because her own mother was a seamstress, but because she felt the piece conveys a great deal about the spirit of Jersey City.
"It says so much about what we are in Jersey City, a place where workers came - and still do come - and made their life," she says.
Jersey City Interprets runs through August 2006.
A key component of Jersey City Museum's mission, says curator Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, is to give voice to artists who have been "marginalized from mainstream organizations." Accordingly, the museum regularly displays the work of underrepresented groups, including many local artists.
"We're lucky, we have a huge artist community in Jersey City," Aranda-Alvarado says. "We like to make sure we include people from diverse backgrounds since Jersey City is such a diverse city."
Local artists comprise a large part of the community that has grown around the museum, and Aranda-Alvarado has strived to give them a place to show their work.
One outgrowth of that policy is the museum's "1 X 1" exhibit, which features a rotating schedule of emerging local artists. Aranda-Alvarado describes 1 X 1 as "one work of art by one artist, treated as a mini solo exhibition." The successful program has generated broader interest for some of its artists - one was even profiled in the New York Times Magazine.
"I want artists to see it as a place where they find support for their work and their ideas," Aranda-Alvarado says.
A typical 1 X 1 piece is usually a sculpture, often placed in the museum's front window display. But Aranda says other parts of the museum hold 1 X 1 exhibits, some of which can be two-dimensional works, such as the current display of hyper-realistic pencil and charcoal landscapes by Heidi Curko, on display through Dec. 22, 2005.
Another exhibit currently on display at Jersey City Museum is the New Jersey State Council on the Arts "Craft Annual," featuring creations of fine art using materials traditionally reserved for crafts - yarn, beads, even glue stick.
"The whole idea of craft has changed so much that we wanted to do something that reflects that," Aranda-Alvarado says.
Running simultaneously with the Craft Annual is a showcase piece by Michelle Loughlin called "Bound," consisting of three walls covered with intricate swirls of knitted yarn. Work such as Loughlin's challenge what Aranda-Alvarado says is an "arbitrary distinction" between the fine arts and crafting.
"It's crafty but it's conceptual at the same time," says Aranda-Alvarado of Loughlin's work.
Both the Craft Annual and Bound run until mid-January 2006.
Part of something big
In addition to its permanent collection and rotating schedule of exhibitions, Jersey City Museum also maintains a 150-seat theater suitable for lectures, ceremonies and film screenings. Numerous cultural and educational groups regularly connect with the museum to hold events in the space.
The Jersey City-based Black Maria Film Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, holds a screening at the museum on its opening weekend each year, and the New Jersey City University-based filmmaking collective Urban Image holds screenings in the museum's theater twice annually.
"We try to engage other arts organizations to come in and partner with us," Marion Grzesiak says. "We just want to engage the public."
Besides local arts organizations, the museum hosts hundreds of student groups each year, in addition to thousands of members of the Jersey City community. Grzesiak says that a real sense of local pride has emerged in Jersey City in recent years, and that the museum has flourished in part because of it.
"The face of Jersey City has changed enormously," Grzesiak says. "People ... are beginning to focus on what's going on in the community."
And by reaching out to offer the city a taste of art, culture, history and a sense of unity, Jersey City Museum has become a focal point of the Jersey City community.
Jersey City Museum is located at 350 Montgomery St. Call (201) 413-0303 or visit www.jerseycitymuseum.org.