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Art Museums Touted as Community Investments Are Actually Fueling Gentrification

When politicians, private real estate and art museums collaborate to “improve” neighborhoods, long-term residents lose.

This photo taken on June 2, 2021, shows a general view of the Pathside building in Jersey City, New Jersey, slated to be developed by French contemporary art museum Centre Pompidou for a Jersey City extension in 2024.

In 1997, the new Spanish branch of the Guggenheim Museum opened in the autonomous Basque Country, replacing the remains of a once-thriving harbor. Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry designed the building to resemble a large, abstracted fish in a not-so-subtle nod to the maritime-industrial capital. Before the Guggenheim Bilbao even opened, the wind and salt from the Bay of Biscay had already corroded the metallic airplane parts that comprised its facade, leading late art critic Allan Sekula to compare it to “the wreck of an old bomber, stained with the greasy residue of burnt kerosene fuel.” Corporate media has been much kinder to the museum in celebrating the “Bilbao effect,” wherein a flashy building “restores” a waterfront city predominantly through tourism and global brand recognition.

Just a few years later, however, the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would poke holes in this narrative. Located on Saadiyat Island (or, “island of happiness”) in the United Arab Emirates, the museum and its collaborators drew ire worldwide after a Human Rights Watch report detailed how South Asian construction workers were underpaid, forcibly indebted, and otherwise pressured into labor. All this was in service to wealthy New York capitalists helping the UAE government turn an island into a tourist destination. It was a landmark moment in the art world, pointing to how closely tied high-profile institutions and luxury real estate had become.

In 2002, historian Andrew Friedman coined the term “Guggenomics” to refer to the museum’s widespread real estate endeavors. Today, Guggenomics continues in the United States as part of the popular narrative that art restores urban communities. Today’s target destinations for new museum projects are often cities heavily impacted by neoliberal austerity, many of which are inhabited by working-class families and local business owners in reasonably priced housing. Communities of color routinely get pushed out of these urban centers — where they historically migrated during the era of suburban white flight — to make way for new waves of gentrification. Commercial art is entangled in this process, primarily through local elites and celebrated institutions.

This was the case with the Bronx in 2015, when real estate developers and art moguls worked together to brand the borough, which is flanked by both Hudson and East rivers. In Queens, the Museum of Modern Art planted its PS1 satellite location in an abandoned public school near the Long Island City waterfront. Today, MoMA PS1 stands surrounded by an excess of new luxury condos. Perhaps most glaringly, the construction of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards — a 28-acre real estate development that opened in 2019 — turned much of western Midtown into a zone of corporate desolation, exacerbated by COVID-19. Labor controversies at multidisciplinary cultural center The Shed and a series of suicides at the climbable Vessel sculpture have escalated this decline and made the future of the riverside complex somewhat unclear.

Now, a new museum planned for Jersey City, New Jersey, begs the question of whether the same moneyed interests can effectively install a big-name arts outpost without harming working-class people living in the surrounding neighborhoods. In June, Mayor Steven Fulop announced that the Centre Pompidou, a Paris-based modern art museum, would open its first-ever satellite location in the industrial Pathside Building. The administration claims that the Pompidou, along with the Loew’s Jersey Theatre (which hosts concerts and performances), would expand Jersey City’s arts resurgence, encouraging Manhattanites and other tourists to make the trip.

Located near a main transportation hub connecting New Jersey and Manhattan, the Pathside Building was originally acquired by the city in 2018. Its plans were unclear for years, although Fulop had long promised a new museum and community center committed to local arts and culture. (The city currently lacks one since the Jersey City Museum closed in 2010.) With easy access to public transit, the Pompidou is Fulop’s bet that a more commercial entertainment nexus will bridge the divide between the newly developed downtown area and historic Journal Square.

Amid these plans, Jersey City is experiencing an affordable housing crisis that Fulop has only marginally addressed since taking office in 2013, escalated by his own development plans. For more than a decade, the city has been undergoing a “redevelopment” that has shifted economic demographics and installed luxury properties from the Kushners and Eliot Spitzer. Fulop’s original mayoral campaign in 2013 promised to address the “Tale of Two Cities” dilemma — a reference to the growing inequalities between the gentrified downtown and more neglected southside municipalities. But little has been done to close that gap, leading residents and activist groups to express concern about the few remaining working-class neighborhoods in Jersey City.

The original Centre Pompidou, designed by European architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, is itself a work of postmodern art: a high-tech rectangular building that displays its infrastructure and mechanics on the outside. It sits in the Beaubourg district of Paris’s fourth administrative district, surrounded by 19th-century architecture designed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The museum’s 1977 opening, documented for Roberto Rossellini’s final film, was a pivotal event for all modern art museums due to its design and innovative use of exhibition spaces. Now, Fulop is seeking guidance from high-profile artists like Rashid Johnson and Jersey City native KAWS on how to handle art industry politics.

Some costs for the Pompidou may fall on Jersey City taxpayers, along with $24 million from New Jersey’s state budget and private philanthropy. Just before the announcement, the Jersey City Council introduced an $82 million bond, with around $15 million promised to the Pathside Building. The Pompidou is slated to open in 2024, and the city will pay an additional $6 million per year until 2029 for collections and exhibitions plus the rights to use Pompidou branding. While the overall price tag is not finalized, building renovations may also cost up to $30 million before opening.

Plans for the Pathside Building were established in 2018, but the Pompidou partnership seems to have been finalized just weeks before the announcement. In a memo obtained by Truthout, the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA) identified that as late as April 15, 2021, the city had not yet found a cultural partner. For a project of this magnitude, cities often pair up with a prominent arts institution or nonprofit to collaborate on the development. Two independent consultants tasked with finding such a partner — OMA*AMO Architecture, P.C. and AEA Consulting, LLC — issued requests for interest in September 2019, with responses due that December. According to the memo, they only received one response that “was not in line with the goals for the development of the Pathside Building.” Only after a virtual press conference with museum representatives did it become clear that New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy facilitated the Pompidou deal through her personal art world connections.

Following this conference, the City Council held an 8-to-1 vote approving the project. The sole dissenting vote was cast by Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro, a four-decade resident of the Greenville district who expressed concerns around public school funding and housing. While Lavarro originally voted Yes to the 2018 Pathside Building acquisition, he claims the Pompidou plans neglect the needs of local communities and feel rushed overall.

“Since the 2018 vote, much has changed,” he told Truthout. “Our state aid for Jersey City public schools has been cut. This is becoming a crisis, as just this past year, schools were cut by $71 million in the $814 million city budget. The city ended up raising taxes by nearly $1,000 per average household, during a pandemic.”

Lavarro has watched many southside neighbors get priced out of housing as new development raises rent prices. In 2017, Jersey City was ranked the fifth-most expensive in the nation for renting a one-bedroom apartment. Its population is around 70 percent renters, with 11,000 newly registered voters in the last two years. The Fulop administration’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, according to Fair Share Housing Center, was the weakest in the state despite Jersey City having the strongest real estate market. Nonetheless, a huge subsidy emerged seemingly overnight for the museum.

“Whenever we talk about where to find funding for social programs, housing assistance, or more affordable housing, there is always some excuse for not having the money,” Lavarro said. “I’ve always said [the museum] cannot be a money pit for the city — the equivalent of charging a credit card and hoping someone else will pay it off down the line.”

Media responses to the Pompidou range from enthusiasm to skepticism and bad-faith criticism. quotes an executive director of the Loew’s Theatre, emphasizing the potential for tourism and profits. Hudson Reporter, meanwhile, details the finances and notes that current expenses exceed the planned allotment for Journal Square. An article in Curbed provides thorough analysis yet still ends up jabbing Jersey City as “a place whose principal draw is the PATH train that allows you to escape from it.” In the Jersey City Times, an op-ed questions the project but, oddly, criticizes grassroots activists for not making public statements.

Yet activists have certainly been speaking out about gentrification and development in Jersey City. One activist group, Jersey City Together (JCT), has been at the forefront of advocating for affordable housing as luxury development spreads across town. Bringing together more than 40 houses of worship, JCT pushed for affordable housing units in the Bay Front Area — about 100 acres of formerly contaminated land the city acquired from Honeywell, which the federal government ordered to clean up and remediate. Other groups like Solidarity Jersey City and Hudson County Progressive Alliance recently rallied to shut down the inclusionary zoning ordinance that gave carte blanche to developers. These organizations also pressured Fulop to do property revaluations for the first time in nearly three decades, revealing that homeowners in Greenville were paying the same property taxes as those in the gentrified downtown area. Lavarro claims that around 75 percent of Greenville renters are cost-burdened, with little money for additional expenses.

“If you look at our numbers and changing demographics, we have Asian, Indian and Dominican populations growing off the charts, but the fastest-growing population isn’t in race or ethnicity, it is actually in income,” he said. “Considering all the new luxury properties, it is not too surprising that the income bracket experiencing the most growth is $200,000+ a year. Some argue that developers are not displacing anyone because they are building on vacant lots, but costs of living and housing are still rising for the surrounding areas as market demand increases.”

Meanwhile, cultural organizations in Jersey City are also fighting for greater funding as commercial rents rise. This creative class of artists and performers opened theaters, studios and galleries in the city over the last few decades and formed the Jersey City Arts Council, which led a campaign to reorient portions of tax abatement revenues to local arts programming. In December 2020, state legislators passed the Arts and Culture Trust Fund — a separate tax on property owners established at one percent of property values. Many artists view the Pompidou as an opportunity for further investment in the community, as Jersey City currently has no public art institution, and the for-profit Mana Contemporary only offers residency programs in a limited capacity.

“It has taken so long to develop the city, and I’m curious to see what happens myself,” said Meredith Burns, a lifelong Jersey City resident and executive director of Art House Productions. “We don’t really know what will happen when an anchor institution takes up residence inside a mainly working-class environment with no history or infrastructure of supporting arts and culture, and I do have my doubts. This is all just a plan until it happens, and it will probably take much longer than we think, but I’m hopeful.”

The Pompidou could become an asset for Jersey City, but art alone cannot remedy the inequalities affecting everyday people. Without robust social services, this corporate expansion may further price out those who were already displaced from the downtown area to Journal Square, all thanks to backdoor deals between politicians, private real estate and powerful art institutions. City officials hoping to make good on public art might consider how to bridge these disparities and retain long-time residents, as flooding neighborhoods with luxury will inevitably result in a bubble. Time will tell whether art truly saves Jersey City, or if this shiny new object expedites its overdevelopment.

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