Next month, two days before the nation marks the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Jersey City will again celebrate JC Fridays, a quarterly showcase of art-related events throughout the community. Ironically, this cultural event grew, albeit indirectly, out of the community’s need to grieve in the aftermath of that tragedy a decade ago.
JC Fridays is sponsored in part by the Hudson Reporter newspapers.
The brainchild of Christine Goodman, founder and executive director of Art House Productions, and the members of the organization’s all-volunteer board, JC Fridays is – like most Art House offerings – a city-wide party dedicated to all things artistic.
But as Art House Productions prepares to turn 10 next month, Goodman recently recalled the organization’s solemn origins.
The Heist Project was pivotal in the genesis of Art House Productions.
Feeling a need to both reflect on the events of Sept. 11 and the need to connect with others in the community, Goodman posted fliers throughout the city inviting artists and other residents to come to an open mic she hosted in the preschool classroom of a small church on Grove Street. The show included performances by poets, musicians, spoken word artists, performance artists, and monologists.
“It was really amazing; people just saw the flier on the street and came in,” said Goodman.
The fliers had read “What Do You Say.”
“I asked people, ‘If we did something like this on an ongoing basis, would you come?’ And everyone said yes,” she said.
Art House Productions was born.
A few months later, in early 2002, Art House launched a regular open mic performance series, a regular showcase for live acts that continues to this day.
“All of our other programs,” said Goodman, “very slowly and organically grew out of that.”
Today Art House produces theatrical performances, dance shows, visual art exhibits, and JC Fridays, held at the beginning of each calendar season. Since 2003, Comcast subscribers in Jersey City have also had access to Art House TV, a weekly show that features live performances by emerging and established poets, comedians, musicians, and performance artists. The nonprofit organization also offers acting workshops.
‘A huge leap’
Before the founding of Art House Productions, the only regular artist showcase that residents had to look forward to was the annual Artist Studio Tour. Held each fall at various venues throughout Jersey City, the Studio Tour gives members of the public an opportunity to visit local artists in their studios and/or homes to see their work up close.
The Artist Studio Tour, which is cosponsored by Pro-Arts Jersey City and the Jersey City Division of Cultural Affairs, as well as the Hudson Reporter newspapers, is now in its 17th year.
But aside from the Studio Tour, there were few opportunities for the community to connect with the artists living here. The thriving cultural hub that has since grown up in Grove Plaza – home of Creative Grove and Groove on Grove – was nonexistent.
“There was a culture of isolation,” said Goodman. “There were visual artists who were in their studios…But in terms of performance, or regular events, there wasn’t anything like that at the time.”
After launching the open mic series in 2002, Art House began hosting special events and doing performances around town, such as Words Against War, which was performed on the steps of City Hall. A one-woman play written by Goodman was the first theatrical piece the organization produced.
Goodman said the organization took “a huge leap” in 2005 when it produced the Heist Project, the local artistic community’s response to the closure of 111 First St. Once a tobacco factory for P. Lorillard, 111 First St. was converted into studio lofts for artists in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, the building’s owner planned to sell it it to a developer, and the artists had to leave.
A large-scale, multi-media show, the Heist Project used the 1990 art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as a metaphor for what was happening to the artists in 111 First St. To this day, the Gardner Museum theft is the largest art heist in history. The case has never been solved.
“We had artists, most of whom were from 111, reinterpret each of the pieces that were stolen,” Goodman recalled. “It was really a reflection on the value of art in communities.”
The Heist Project drew on the talents of 50 writers, visual artists, performers, filmmakers, and videographers. The piece was pivotal in the genesis of Art House, Goodman said, because it “really stretched the limit of what we could produce and what we could create artistically. And everything took a huge step forward after we did the Heist Project.”
Like any new organization, Art House has had its share of growing pains over the past decade.
Institutionalizing Art House Productions and fundraising have been challenges, as has the pursuit for a permanent home for the organization’s operations.
After doing its debut performance in the church on Grove Street, Art House was, for a time, able to use Victory Hall as a venue for its shows. But when the site was taken over by a parochial preschool, Art House was left homeless in 2007.
The organization has since worked out a temporary arrangement with Paul Silverman and Eric Silverman, developers who plan to turn the old St. Frances Hospital in Hamilton Park into a condo development.
“My learning curve has been enormous,” said Goodman. “There was nobody we could ask, ‘How do we do this?’ I feel like I’ve reinvested the wheel several times over because Jersey City doesn’t have a culture of sustaining nonprofit arts organizations. There’s nothing in place to provide a foundation or a support system for these organizations to last long-term…The biggest lesson I leaned was, you can be passionate about something. But if you don’t have people with you who share that dream, you’re going to burn out.”
Among the people who share Goodman’s dream for Art House are the organization’s artistic director, Jack Halpin, Board President Alicia Kurzer, and board members Lexie Levin and Stephanie Lubalin.
Currently, Goodman is the organization’s only full-time paid staffer. Art House would like to raise enough money eventually to hire more people.
In the meantime, its programming continues to evolve. During the 2011-2012 school year, Art House will introduce Stages, a 12-week theater program for students in grades four through 12.
“I never thought I’d be in Jersey City this long,” Goodman said. “I came for the cheap rent and fell in love with it. Now that I’m here, and we’ve invested in Art House Productions, my hope now is to sustain this and keep it growing. I hope we’re still here in 10 more years.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.