By Sofia Gottfried
Mana Contemporary is one of Jersey City’s newest, and most vibrant, cultural gems. In just six years, Mana has stormed the art world, turning an abandoned tobacco factory into a premier contemporary arts destination.
At over a million square feet, its colossal scope alone is wildly impressive. Mana Contemporary has many pieces and installations from leading as well as up-and-coming artists, which is notable for any exhibition space, let alone one as new as it is. But it’s what else Mana has to offer that truly sets it apart – there is a reason it dubs itself as an “arts destination” rather than a gallery or a museum. Mana Contemporary houses over 150 artists’ studios, two dance companies, a foundry, a book publishing company, an art academy, a printmaking studio, a restaurant and much more.
With an unassuming brick façade, Mana Contemporary is a bit off the beaten path. In fact, the Newark Avenue locale sits in a neighborhood with worn, narrow row houses, closer to Journal Square than to the more affluent waterfront section of the city. On a Friday afternoon in November, the cavernous, minimalistic front entrance smelled like a fresh coat of paint. Workers crisscrossed through the hallways with rolling carts full of canvases and boxes. Sari Levy, who leads public tours of Mana, lamented the futility of trying to see the whole place in just a few hours’ time to a small group of visitors.
Mana Contemporary’s story starts with a moving company known as Moishe’s Moving and Storage. Owner Moishe Mana and business partner Eugene Lemay worked together for decades, starting with a single moving van and expanding to operations in nine cities across the country. Lemay, a visual artist himself, pushed for expanding into the art moving and storage business, resulting in a sister company called Mana Fine Arts. Although business was budding, it seemed a shame to Lemay that many of the most prestigious art collections “end up in crates, stowed away from the public eye.”
Lemay, who now serves as Mana Contemporary’s chief executive, was also receiving feedback from two very different parties: “we heard from the collectors that they wanted space to exhibit their collections and we heard from artists that they needed space to experiment, to work on large projects, and collaborate.” These ideas, plus with a serendipitous meeting with artist Yigal Ozeri, now one of Mana’s key art advisors, inspired Mana Contemporary, which eventually opened in 2011.
Since then, a diverse range of people and projects have flourished within. True to its roots, art storage is still the backbone of the operation – the works displayed are a mix of stored collections on display and works being temporarily exhibited. Several prestigious institutions, like the International Center of Photography and the Richard Meier Model Museum, have also moved operations inside Mana’s enormous walls.
The space itself also functions as an arts community. Over 100 artists have taken up permanent studio space at Mana. Currently, there is a six-month residency program that gives promising artists complimentary studio space and access to Mana’s vast resources. Lemay is intent on creating a hive of artistic activity. He explained, “We offer so much more than a studio. We provide the services, as well as access to collectors, things that the artists need to build and grow their careers.”
Visitors of Mana Contemporary are also invited to be part of its community. Here, the artistic process is as much on display as the finished product. Guests are encouraged to peek in on artists at work in their studios or mingle with them over cappuccinos in the fourth floor café. “Usually, the public only sees the end result, the finished artwork or performance. Here, they see the work that goes into the creative process,” Lemay explained.
The choice of Jersey City as the location was more a marriage of convenience, Lemay admitted. “You won’t find a building of this scale available in Manhattan or Brooklyn, or even the Bronx,” he said. Still, Lemay is excited about Jersey City’s cultural revival, and Mana’s role in it. Considering Mana’s strong partnership with Jersey City and Hudson County at large, it’s clear that even bigger things are on the horizon.
Looking ahead, Lemay, Ricks and the team at Mana show no signs of slowing down. Satellite locations in Chicago and Miami are up and running, and the Jersey City campus will soon have a hotel, artist housing, a sculpture garden, additional dining options and a whole host of other events, exhibitions and partnerships. Ricks, echoing the philosophy of Mana, observed, “right now, anything feels possible.”
Tours of Mana Contemporary are offered at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday to Friday. 888 Newark Ave, Jersey City.