Jersey City Museum
Jersey City’s only museum showcasing the work of local emerging artists is in dire financial straits. Artists such as Martha Colburn, Amy Wilson, Louis Cameron, Damien Catera have all exhibited at the Jersey City Museum, a public institution with a now uncertain future. On March 30th the museum announced it would slash its hours to only one day a week (Saturday 12-5) to reduce operating costs. That’s not a good sign.
A worse sign is that only a week and a half after that announcement was made someone mailed me a letter from the museum staff directed to the museum’s Board of Trustees, expressing a lack of confidence in the museum’s future. From the document:
As per our last staff meeting with Nathan Sambul on March 3rd, we were told of a 90-day plan to save the museum. Less than two weeks later, we have not been paid for this past pay period and have growing concerns about the future. In spite of this, the JCM staff remains fully dedicated. We deserve to know if the 90-day plan is still in affect and, if so, under what conditions we are expected to serve.
We the staff of Jersey City Museum are concerned about the museum’s well-being and financial situation for the following reasons:
- Jersey City Museum has not made payroll in a timely manner seven times in the last nine months: July 2, Sept. 30, Oct. 9, Dec. 8, Feb. 12, Feb. 25, March 15.
- As of today, March 17th, Jersey City Museum employees have not been paid for the March 15th pay period.
- Jersey City Museum issued bad checks to its employees three of the last five times. Employees were penalized by their banks and employees’ personal credit has been affected.
- Jersey City Museum is using revenue generated from program partnerships to supplement payroll.
- Jersey City Museum has encouraged its part-time staff to work unpaid, “to volunteer services,” in order to oversee and manage its programming.
- Jersey City Museum has encouraged its salaried staff to forgo compensation days to manage and oversee programming.
- Jersey City Museum has not secured new funds since April 2009, and we are concerned that no new funds are on the horizon.
Yikes! This is pretty serious business, so I called everyone I knew at the museum and wrote virtually every staff member who’d ever worked there for statements. Strangely almost no one wanted to talk. The few who would either gave me canned PR responses or would speak only under the condition of anonymity. I also talked to a number of trustee members including the chairman of the board, Nathan Sambul, about whether they had received the letter. No one could confirm its receipt. In response to my questions about the museum’s financial health, Sambul simply said:
The Jersey City Museum, like many other nonprofit institutions, has seen a decrease in its funding, and we have taken appropriate action. On our website, we have clearly laid out our course of action. If you like to report on the Museum, I would hope that you would recommend to your readers to come to the museum and see our fabulous shows.
Although no link was provided, the page Sambul refers to discusses the Museum’s reduced operating hours and a June fundraiser titled ARTrageous. The event asks donors to give between $5 to $5,000, using an artist-designed golf course with the holes as donation markers. This isn’t exactly a plan, though meeting the event’s $90,000 target won’t hurt the museum. When I asked Sambul to confirm that there was no 90-day initiative to save the museum, he refused to comment.
According to many sources, the question of why the museum’s suffering such hard times begins with long time Executive Director Marion Grzesiak and ends with her ineffective replacement Laurene Buckley, who was relieved of the position after just six months.
Grzesiak worked at the museum between 2001 and 2008, and is now at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Nearly everyone I spoke to who had worked at the museum during this time complained about “rampant nepotism”, one anonymous source decried, “the museum was run like a family business–and most of the staff were not a part of the family or the business.” Said source was speaking specifically of Grzesiak’s hire of her son, James Congregane who was brought on as the front desk manager and soon promoted to Director of Operations. Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, a respected curator at the museum would later marry Congregane, placing three top positions at the museum in one family.
I was told all three received raises in the face of the 2008 cutbacks and over $250,000 in loans but 990 forms for 2005-2008 only list the loan and highest paid positions. Aranda-Alvarado received a nominal raise for that year, totaling $3,158. According to these same records, from 2001-2004 Grzesiak’s pay remained at 90,000, but over the course of the next four years was increased by $32, 263 in salary and benefits. This doesn’t strike me as wholly out of line — Grzesiak’s salary is still well below any museum executives name recently in the New York Times “Major Earners” — though any pay increase in a year of cutbacks and bank loans doesn’t look good. In 2008, Grzesiak received a raise of over $7,500. I was unable to reach her for comment.
Grzesiak’s departure was unfortunate timing for the museum, as it is now burdened with over $250,000 dollars in loans and no experienced fundraiser to pull them out of those straits. It’s unclear why the Board of Trustees appointed Laurene Buckley as her replacement, as I was told she had few contacts in Jersey City and a resume that included being fired from The Queens Museum of Art – according to some – for failing to adequately increase attendance. It was under her leadership, that the Director of Development position was eliminated in January 2010, for a part time grant writer. You know a museum’s in trouble when they lay off the people who ensure the place has enough money to operate. Buckley was let go only three months later according to sources, for failing to raise any money for the museum during the course of her six-month employment.
Buckley also did not return my emails, though one former staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the museum’s troubles were not the result of one person but a perfect storm of events: losing a long time director, weathering the financial crash, and a myriad of other unspecified problems. “Any not- for-profit who has a successful director for many years, when the director steps down– they fall apart,” the source told me.
Of course, with almost no staff, and no development plan past a $90,000 fundraising campaign it’s hard to know how this is going to happen. The museum hasn’t had a full time curator since Aranda-Alvarado’s departure in 2009, nor, according to sources, an exhibition budget. Not to state the obvious, but that’s a problem. So are the tales of mysteriously disappearing funds and failure to meet payroll that ran though my correspondence with former staff. As of today the Jersey City Museum has not released all employee pay-checks from March.
Still, almost every staff member I talked to spoke with deep commitment to the museum even in the face of murky financial management. “I am saddened by the thought that the museum might be in trouble and I hope something can be done to save this important community institution,” former employee Sandy Martiny told me over email, later acknowledging her statement was canned. “It’s actually how I feel about JMC. Call me Pollyanna.” Another spoke with great remorse about the museum’s strong education program. At one time the museum provided tours and workshops based on the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions, exposing students to artists such as Xenobia Bailey; Papo Colo; Raphael Ortiz; Chakaia Booker; Ben Jones; William Pope L; Melvin Edwards; Rodriguez Calero. The permanent collection reflects the demographic of Jersey City. Closure would be a huge loss to the public.
Reflecting the dedication I witnessed when speaking to JMC employees, the apparently unsent letter to the board makes these suggestions for moving forward:
We feel employees should be able to confidentially contribute our input to the Board. In addition, here are some of the staff’s suggestions that may help us remain open.
- Jersey City Museum could move to the Beacon location.
- Sell the museum’s third floor to an independent contractor and staff offices can be relocated to the first and second floor.
- Gala committee should expand outside of museum staff to help with fundraising efforts.
- Sell off naming rights for the museum’s galleries.
- Sell off naming rights for seats in the Caroline Guarini Theatre.
- Hire a professional fundraiser who will take a small cut. At this time, there is no one on staff fundraising for the museum.
The JCM staff’s position is that we are not giving up. We do not believe that this situation is the result of one person’s actions. We maintain that this problem is fixable with the right steps and appropriate leadership.
One month later, it’s unclear whether any of these steps have been explored let alone taken.
Anne Johnson contributed reporting to this piece.