It’s not surprising that the Centre Pompidou — Paris’s principal museum of modern art — would open an American exhibition space, as officials announced in early June. The Guggenheim’s global expansion, despite some hiccups, turned Bilbao, a city that wasn’t a cultural magnet at all, into a destination, and the Pompidou already has three outposts of its own outside of France. Even so, the worlds of art and real estate did a collective double take when the museum announced its choice of location: Jersey City, the second-largest town in the 47th-largest state, a place whose principal draw is the PATH train that allows you to escape from it. (The museum, in fact, will be right by the Journal Square PATH stop.) One imagines the French curatorial staff getting a taste of Taylor Pork Roll and doing their own double take.
The Pompidou will join another modern-art center nearby, Mana Contemporary. But a couple of museums together hardly make a global arts district. What drew the Pompidou to the Garden State? Free space and funding, mostly (and that 15-minute PATH ride to Manhattan). In fact, the museum agreed to the four-story warehouse space sight unseen after a French cultural attaché visited the site once to seal the deal.
For Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop, the museum outpost is a “game changer” in his plan to woo wealthy New Yorkers to the city. In Journal Square, an industrial area that used to be the city’s hub, the museum will rise near new luxury skyscrapers by the Kushners along with major projects, the mayor says, from Silverstein Properties and Spitzer Enterprises, the real-estate firm of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.
The Pompidou satellite is the culmination of a three-year search for an arts partner to take over the historic Pathside building. When the city purchased the building for $9 million in 2018, officials halted its conversion into a residential high-rise and promised that it would be home to a museum and community center. The Fulop administration hired the architecture firm OMA to lead its search for a cultural institution, while the mayor personally reached out to artist friends like Rashid Johnson and Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, a Jersey City native, for advice on navigating art-world politics. Several museums were interested, including the Guggenheim, which two people familiar with the application said had wanted to turn the space into an audiovisual recording studio. But the Pompidou’s track record of creating satellite locations and the chance for Jersey City to host the museum’s first North American outpost appealed to city administrators.
In exchange for access to the Pompidou’s expertise and 120,000 artworks, the city has agreed to shoulder renovation costs that could exceed $40 million. It’s also on the hook for another $6 million annually* over the course of its five-year contract to cover project development, branding, educational programming, and the organization of exhibitions. Fulop told Curbed that his administration is also looking to purchase an adjoining property, which could roughly double the size of the Pompidou. No cost was given for the proposed expansion.
But some longtime residents and local legislators have balked at the price. “Everyone agrees that the Pompidou is an extraordinary asset for Jersey City,” said Rolando Lavarro, a city councilman. “But we just raised a levy on homeowners because we didn’t have the money for school funding. How can we then bring more financial debt to the table for a museum?” He, like other city officials, only learned of the news through an announcement in the New York Times. For Lavarro, the decision to announce the new museum without any discussion with the City Council looked like a tactic to drum up public support for the project before its costs could be scrutinized.
Having lived in Journal Square during the early 2000s, artist Amy Wilson remembers when she could rent a two-bedroom apartment in the area for $800 a month. These days, she said, similar apartments are listed for nearly $3,000. According to Census data, rents in Jersey City have increased by nearly 15 percent between 2013 and 2018. Many of the largest developments in Jersey City lack affordable housing, but the cost of living has risen dramatically over the last decade.
“As someone who has lived in this city for 24 years, it’s incredibly frustrating to see the city constantly building to attract new residents while not meeting the needs of the people already here,” Wilson said. She recalled that last summer, during the pandemic, many of the city’s elderly had gathered in an empty Journal Square plaza because they didn’t have air conditioning. “But there were no benches for them to sit on because the city is worried about homelessness,” she said.
Willard Ashley, an affordable-housing activist and a reverend at a local church, added, “We are not against art. Many are struggling to understand the expenditure in the COVID-19 era. All long-term residents are asking, regardless of their political leaning, is, please explain.”
In response to pushback about the costs, Fulop said that he planned on having the state’s Economic Development Authority contribute nearly $15 million, with other funds coming from philanthropists and developers. The mayor also hopes to broker more deals with developers to build more affordable housing in the area.
But not everyone is biting. A representative for the Kushner Companies said it currently had no plans to donate money to the Pompidou project; it’s already contributed to the $72 million renovation of the historic Loew’s Theater, which the city plans to convert into a 3,300-seat venue.
For many longtime residents, the boom in luxury developments and the Pompidou news signal a big departure from Journal Square’s character as a diverse, working-class hub. Artists like Wilson are waiting to see how the Pompidou will work with existing residents — and if the French museum will decide to renew its lease.
Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, director of the Pompidou’s arts and culture department, told Curbed that the institution hopes to stay in the city permanently and develop programming that fits the community. The museum also plans on hiring a local team to manage its galleries to ensure that projects work within the context of Jersey City.
The model everyone is looking to is not as far as Bilbao and closer to home; as residents and public officials told Curbed, they are wondering if the Jersey City Pompidou can become an economic engine for Journal Square in the same way that MoMA PS1 has for Queens. “We hope to have the Pompidou effect,” said Fulop. “In Manhattan, everything is already developed, but that doesn’t exist here. It’s pretty much a blank canvas.”
*Clarification, 6/18/2021: We have changed this sentence to make it clearer that the five-year cost to the city will be $6 million per year, not $6 million total.