New Jersey-based Mana Contemporary calls itself the “leading arts destination dedicated to celebrating the creative process” and “one of the largest and most innovative contemporary art organizations in the United States.”
More a challenge than statement, the organization that opened in a converted Jersey City tobacco warehouse in 2011 has been going full court with exhibitions, openings, and workshops — such as the week-long performance workshop organized by the Serbia-born and internationally heralded artist Marina Abromovic.
And with deep pockets backing it, it is no wonder that the New York Times noted that it “might be one of the art world’s best-kept secrets.” Area arts enthusiasts can get a chance to see for themselves during one of the three free weekday tours — 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m.
But it isn’t all show. A division, Mana Fine Arts, provides services to artists in the form of studio and workshop areas, exhibition areas, and storage.
Well-known New Jersey painter Mel Leipzig brought the company to my attention. It’s where the 80-year-old Trenton-based artist — whose works are in major national collections — stores his 300 plus art works. When I showed interest, Leipzig invited me along on a trip in his van to pick up paintings for one of his upcoming exhibitions.
As his white Ford van speeds north on the New Jersey Turnpike, Leipzig says that he learned about the company from his estate manager, offering advice on where to professionally store his works. Two places were mentioned. “The first place I went was Mana,” says Leipzig. “I’d never heard of it and had trouble getting there, but finally I did, and it was like Hollywood! Two young women took me around and showed the space. It’s really nice.” At the other place, in contrast, Leipzig was met by “some old guy” who pointed at a room and said, “There it is!” Mana, it turned out, was also cheaper.
Leipzig then provides a verbal sketch of the company’s namesake, Moishe Mana. “He’s very successful. He’s changing it more from storage to exhibitions. He’s Israeli and there are (Mana) museums all over the place.”
Various newspaper articles and Mana materials provide a fuller picture of the man who made a fortune with a moving business, Moishe’s Moving.
The son of Israeli real estate brokers, Mana served in the army and attended one year of Tel Aviv University before dropping out and coming to New York City in 1983 at the age of 23 to make a new start. After a series of jobs, Mana ended up working with a contractor who gave him use of a truck at night.
He used the borrowed truck for a regular route of towel laundry service for gay saunas until he saved enough to open a business — the Man with the Van. Despite some ups and downs with partners, he developed a reputation that in turn helped him get the funding to start again, and founded Moishe’s Moving. By 1988 he had 33 red trucks and 180 employees and was turning over $12 million a year.
The move to arts came in part through artist Eugene Lemay, whom Mana hired as a van driver and eventually became an important part of transport and then the art business.
Mana says in an article that the move to Jersey City reflects the way he does things. “My nature is not to go with the herd. I was always able to choose my niche. Just as my businesses are different and original, so too are my real estate investment choices . . . (Jersey City) is not crowded, it’s easy to get to and, above all, it’s a lot cheaper.” Today Mana owns 35 acres in the city and has invested several million dollars in renovations.
“I have to pay over $2,000 a month for storage,” says Leipzig of his 500 square foot unit. “I get it off my income tax. But still it is an expense. Before I had storage place near Hightstown. That was about $2,000 a year, but it didn’t have all my work. This space is bigger and better and the work now needs to be packed in paper and cardboard and waterproof wrap.”
As we drive along a complex of brick buildings and glass exhibition areas, Leipzig gestures and says, “All this is Mana.”
In addition to the tobacco warehouse the company also has the former American Can Building, an imposing industrial space with white walls, concrete floors, metal roofs, quartz lamp light, and loading docks.
After we check in at a gate, three employees arrive to help, including the account manager, Joelle Perry, an artist who studied in Florence; art handler Edison Selimi, an Albanian who had studied forestry but came to the U.S. to work with Sotheby’s auction; and art handler Zenio Mejia, a Honduran with a master’s degree in economics.
As the trio leads us up the elevator and into passages converted into corrugated wall storage units, Perry and Leipzig talk about recent changes in the building and how the International Center for Photography moved its archives from downtown Manhattan to Mana in Jersey City.
The team now opens Leipzig’s unit and checks over his list against the boxed and numbered paintings filling walls of rack frames. After the works are located, the team puts them on a trolley and delivers them into the van.
“Let me show you the exhibition space,” says Leipzig as he leads me out of one building, onto an empty small street, and then past a row of sculptures by German artist Ewerdt Hilgemann that flanks the path to the former tobacco building that now sports Broadway-like posters announcing the exhibitions and activities inside.
On the first floor, we enter the open foyer, and sign in with the security guard. Passing along a large corridor, we find vast high-ceilinged galleries with frosty white walls, floors, and ceilings. One features the Pellizzi Family Collections, an exhibition that includes works by Mexican artists Julio Galan and Daniel Lezama. Despite an obviously large number of works and size (one work is 24 feet in length), the area feels light and allows the works to have a presence that invites inspection and conversation.
After leisurely viewing the collection, Leipzig and I decide to pass the other galleries and take the elevator to have lunch at Mana Cafe on the fourth floor. Between the floors we meet two Mana workmen with hand carts. A quick conversation reveals that they are both are Jersey City-based artists. They’re also upbeat and talk readily about how the presence of Mana is important to them and the city.
At the fourth floor the elevator opens to a hallway where we face a new and modern dance studio. It has a hardwood floor, natural light flowing in from a row of windows, and a large glass wall that provides visitors an opportunity to watch contemporary choreographer Karole Armitage work with her company, Armitage Gone! Dance. While the company is in permanent residence at Mana, it’s off today and the room is empty.
The cafe is a short walk down the hall. With gray stone walls, floors, and ceiling, it feels more urban than urbane. A long rectangular wood table fills the center of the large dining area, and smaller circular tables surround it. Roughly 20 patrons of mixed ages pepper the seats. Euro-funk music provides a sound backdrop, and copies of Art Forum magazine are displayed in stations of unfinished wood.
The host, David, a young man in his late 20s, tells us that the cafe is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to serve the artists, studio workers, and gallery visitors. It’s also open to the public. Not an artist himself, David says that he is affected by the space. “There are so many nooks and crannies to discover in this place. I sometimes just go and visit studios, and then I see the artists in the cafe. It makes this job so worth it. It is a very cool place.”
After lunch — trendy sandwiches and beverage for two at $20 — we return downstairs for one of the tours and pass internationally exhibiting sculptor Carole Feuerman’s lifelike figures and a theater where a film shows to empty seats to the reception desk.
Sari Levy — a photographer who handles visitor services — appears and welcomes the group of a dozen visitors — a variety of ages including young parents with a baby.
As we head towards the Glass Gallery, one of the hot spots at Mana, Levy leads us through a parking lot and maps out present and future projects: There is a studio that provides furniture for a Museum of Modern Art project. There is a foundry that moved from Red Hook in Brooklyn and is known for casting work for major artists. Over there is where there will be artist housing and studios. And here in the parking lot where everyone stands will be a sculpture garden designed by world famous, Newark-born architect Richard Meier.
Levy brings us inside an exhibition area — an expansive and airy 50,000-square-foot facility — that features works by artists from South America, including a sculpture in progress, neon lights, and installations.
While the Glass Gallery exhibitions change, others do not. That includes the 15,000-square-foot Richard Meier Model Museum that features work from the 1960s to today and includes sculptures and colleges. Adjacent to his museum is Gary Lichenstein Editions, a studio and exhibition space presenting high-quality, limited-edition prints, including works developed with Marina Abramovic, Bob Gruen, Robert Indiana, and Richard Meier. And down the hall are large galleries and workspaces.
At one point Levy and I end up in a quiet conversation, and she thinks aloud about the phenomenon of a financed international art center emerging in the middle of a sometimes troubled large New Jersey city and credits the right business and arts thinkers and a place. “We’re still building,” she says, calling it all, “a lesson for cities.”
“It would be good for people from Trenton to come here,” says Leipzig as we get back in his van.
Unsure of exactly why, I know he’s right.
MANA Contemporary, 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, free tours Monday through Friday at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. www.manacontemporary.com.