City Councilman and mayoral hopeful Steven Fulop this week plans to formally propose the creation of an ad-hoc committee to inventory artworks in the collection of the Jersey City Museum.
The financially-troubled museum closed its doors in December. Since then its future – and its collection of hundreds of artworks and artifacts – have been in limbo.
Earlier this year the United Way of Hudson County expressed an interest in purchasing the museum’s building at 350 Montgomery St. The organization was expected to lease a portion of the space back to the museum for exhibits and administrative offices. That deal, however, fell through last month, and the building is now in danger of foreclosure by Sovereign Bank.
The inventory would include an accounting of items still housed at 350 Montgomery and pieces that are on loan to other institutions across the country.
The ad-hoc committee would include appointees made by the City Council and would be headed by Maryanne Kelleher, director of the city’s Division of Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with the museum’s former director.
Fulop is expected to introduce his proposal at this Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
“History has shown that during times of transition in museums is when artwork and valuables are most at risk of potential damage or theft,” Fulop said last week. “By appointing a group of experts from the Jersey City area to facilitate an inventory process, we can ensure that no individual has too much access to the collection without the necessary checks and balances.”
His proposal, he added, has received the support of some local arts community leaders.
“There is more to this process than just making a list of artworks,” said Irene Bongraber, the founder of the Distillery Gallery in the Jersey City Heights neighborhood. “There are standards and protocols that must be followed in order to make sure that the collection is properly identified and protected during this uncertain period. Jersey City has an extensive professional arts community whose help and expertise should be enlisted in order to protect these cultural assets.”
Custody battle over art
The need for an inventory of the museum’s collection came to light earlier this year when the city’s legal department requested that the museum board conduct an audit of the collection.
“On behalf of the city of Jersey City, we write to confirm that the board of the Jersey City Museum is adequately protecting the Jersey City art collection,” Corporation Counsel Bill Matsikoudis wrote in a January 11 letter to the board. “In light of the museum’s financial problems, we need assurance that the collection is being protected pursuant to the terms of the contract between the museum and the city.”
Matsikoudis requested that the board submit an inventory of the permanent collection to the city, indicating “where each item is stored, on display, or on lend to other entities. Finally, please confirm that each piece is stored in conditions conducive to the preservation of Jersey City’s permanent art collection.
The city requested that the inventory be completed by Feb. 11.
The board’s leadership bristled at the request.
In a response letter to Matsikoudis, museum Board Vice Chairman James Kobak wrote, “I must say that we are surprised by the city’s sudden professed interest in the protection of what it refers to as ‘the Jersey City art collection…’ The city is responsible for those ‘financial problems’ because of its failure to fulfill its financial commitments to the museum.”
Although the museum is a financially independent institution, it has received city funding since its inception. But in recent years, with the city facing a deficit, that funding has been cut. Last year the city gave the museum $500,000, a drop from $625,000 the year before.
In his letter, Kobak went on to state that “substantial parts of the collection” belong, not to the city, but to the museum’s board.
The collection has been caught in a tug of war between the museum board and the city ever since, which some in the arts community believe may hold up the inventory, further jeopardizing artwork in the collection.
In response to Fulop’s proposal, Kelleher told the Reporter last week that, “this matter is now in the hands of lawyers. The city’s attorneys are talking to the board’s attorneys, and they’re now trying to resolve this. The [inventory] process is beyond me at this point.”
Kelleher confirmed that corporation counsel staff has met several times with the board’s lawyers and they are negotiating when and how the inventory should be completed. An ad-hoc committee of artists would at this point, she said, “stymie a process that needs to move rather quickly.”
Since the museum’s board operates independently from the city, Kelleher noted the city can’t “direct” it to accept an ad-hoc committee, even if one were created, and committee members would likely need to be recommended, approved, and sworn-in – a process that could take months.
Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy agreed.
In a statement released after Fulop announced his proposal, the mayor said: “At my direction, the Division of Cultural Affairs in conjunction with the law department, has been working with the museum board for several months to develop a process to inventory and protect the city’s priceless art collection during this time of transition for the museum. To create a bureaucratic committee now consisting of nine council appointees who are required to have highly specialized credentials would take months to accomplish and will not facilitate our mutual goal of creating a comprehensive inventory as expeditiously as possible, but would rather stymie it.”
Kelleher said she has asked the councilman to reconsider his proposal.
There are roughly 10,000 pieces of artwork in the museum’s collection, some of which are in storage, some of which have been loaned out to other arts or educational institutions, and some of which are still at 350 Montgomery St.
With a possible foreclosure of the museum building looming, it may be necessary for these artworks to be stored until the city is able to find another permanent home for the collection.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.