Friday, October 18, 2013

Mana Contemporary: Is All the World Its Stage?

Greg and I took another trip out to Mana Contemporary yesterday. There it is, this multi-building complex on the west side of Jersey City, next to the PATH line to Newark, within sight of the Hackensack River and the Pulaski Skyway, and the Meadowlands to the north. Once it was a can factory and tobacco warehouses, now it’s an art complex. One man we talked to, a project manager named Yoav, says there’s nothing else like it in the world.

In the world!

Is that so?

That’s what the man said.

But what does that mean, in the world?

Well certainly means that it’s a unique combination of facilities and institutions.

How so?

Well, it has fine-arts storage for major collectors and institutions. You know, Mr. Big Bucks Billionaire has 3482 pieces of art in his collection, but can display on 637 of them in three houses and two condos spread over four continents. What does he do with the other 2845 pieces? Puts them in storage with Mana.

And Mana moves pieces around from storage to house, from condo to storage, and so on, right?

I assume so, yes. But Mana also has viewing galleries where a collector can take some stuff out and look at it.

And where it can be displayed to the public?

Yes. They do that too. That’s another aspect of the place.

OK, so we’ve got art storage and display. Big deal. There must be over a dozen museums within 10 miles of Mana each of which has more art on display than Mana, even if they do keep some of their overage there. Anything else?

Why yes. But Mana's got studios for artists, photographers, sculptors and others. And they've got a cafe where they can gather over a meal or a snack and chat.

OK. Now we’re getting somewhere.

And so it goes. We have art storage, exhibition space, and artists themselves. According to this New York Times article:
A gallery for Far Eastern art is under construction, as is a chamber music hall with high-tech recording facilities. (A deal to sell concerts from Mana on iTunes is already in place.) By September, Mr. Lemay said, Mana will have a foundry for sculptors, and much of the paved space between the buildings will be a sculpture garden. Beyond that, Mana’s plans call for a 1,400-seat theater, four restaurants, several more art exhibition spaces and studios for 250 artists, as well as studios for architects and interior designers.

Mr. Lemay is so sure that Mana will become a magnet for artists and art aficionados that he is planning to convert one of his buildings into a hotel, for people who went to spend several days exploring the center.
They just opened a foundry and they’ve already got a dance studio, with two dance companies in residence. And they’ve got the Middle East Center for the Arts, which shows contemporary art from, as the name says, the Middle East. So Mana Contemporary’s got a lot going for it, including a similar, but smaller, complex of institutions in Chicago.

Yoav is probably right: There’s nothing else like it in the world. And it’s just getting started.

What will it become? Better question: What COULD it become?

But here’s something that’s been on my mind for four decades. This is from the end of one of my recent articles about the MacArthur Fellows Program:
In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century. 
But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.
We need new institutions, and certainly for the core university functions: teaching and education, dissemination, and research and preservation.

Could Mana Contemporary be such an institution? Could it be a template, a model, for a new kind of institution? I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. But I do think we’re in a situation where a new model or two could reverberate around the world.

That it is unique in all the world puts Mana Contemporary on the world stage. What will it do there?

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