Sunday Funday at Jersey City's Mana Contemporary

The art scene in Jersey City is one of the most amazing things we've stumbled upon since moving here. Honestly, we didn't know there was much of a scene to speak of when our moving truck crossed under the Hudson. Not that we are connoisseurs, or collectors, or experts in any way. Our expertise is in the commercial creative industries. But the thing about commercial creativity is that it is often born of an artist who has twisted his or her talents to pay the bills. A love of creativity is a love of creativity, and the vibe of a city tapped into its creative citizens and embracing its art scene (under as well as above-ground) is noticeably distinct.

That's the case here in Jersey City, and we're so grateful for this (yet another positive) discovery post-move.

One of the gems, if not the gem, of Jersey City is Mana Contemporary, which opened in 2011. To quote its self-description, Mana Contemporary is one of the largest and most innovative contemporary art organizations in the United States. It utilizes a hive concept to serve as a catalyst for the integration and exchange of ideas between artists and leaders in the art world.

Artists of diverse disciplines — painting, sculpture, photography, dance, film, sound and performance — work alongside each other in a progressive campus environment which fosters experimentation, collaboration, and mutual inspiration.

This past Sunday, Mana opened its doors for the community to witness how this model manifests itself. And we ran for the doors.

First of all, this artist community is housed in one giant multi-functional 1920s industrial brick building. At this point, it spans 500,000-square-feet of light-filled studios and pristine galleries, but the center will eventually encompass over 1.8 million-square-feet.


What this means for an average visitor is a joyous experience -- especially if you are a visitor with little people -- because these galleries are so expansive that children (and adults, to be honest) feel the wide-openness of the space and sense that they are in a place they cannot easily damage (this assumes we aren't letting them touch anything). Touching can be an inevitable accident in a cramped studio gallery where it's hard not to bump into precious objects. That's not the case here.

Inside Mana's Gallery 888, for example -- a 5,000 square-foot ground-floor exhibition space off the main entrance that is currently hosting New York-based artist John Newsom's "Rogue Arena" exhibition -- the World's Cutest Human was free to look around in her own way without disturbing too many people (there's always the child-haters, and there's nothing you can do about child-haters but ignore them and ensure your children are being respectful).

That freedom inside this gallery actually chilled her out and she was soon captivated by Newsom's large, vibrant, colorful paintings of exotic animals and environments. "Raaaaaaawwwwr!" she exclaimed at the lion and, "Whoooo whoooo" at the owls. "Rogue Arena" is a gorgeous display of 14 of his works up until April 24th. It is not to be missed -- learn more about the exhibition (worth the read) here.

As we wandered a bit further into the belly of the beast, we noticed a sign for a "Kid's Room." Typically, this would mean a small space filled with plastic toys, perhaps a slide or ride-along car and a bunch of screaming mini's who know they've been left behind for greater things. But still, we headed that way to check out what it meant at Mana. Boy were we pleasantly surprised!

The "Kid's Room" at Mana is a giant room with blank walls that they can draw on with chalk and crayons. Again, that bears repeating: the kids could draw on the walls. That fact alone stops them in their tracks and I assure you that there was no shortage of adults getting in on the fun. Both the Love of My Life and I picked up a piece of chalk and went to town, remembering how amazing it feels to channel the unabashed energy of a child as we scrawled across the walls. The World's Cutest Human did the same and as with most artistically-inclined environments, I did not interrupt what she was doing. Whatever crayon or chalk she picked up and how she chose to draw with it was magical and up to her. After my little sketching experiment, I sat down and watched her. My heart explodes with contentment whenever I watch her imagination emerging.

And that's the thing. Nothing brings the experience of a museum full-circle for a young child like letting them participate. By using their own imaginations and seeing the result of their beautiful minds on the wall in front of them, they more easily absorb that the artist in the gallery one room over has done the same thing with his or her imagination. Each of us is born an artist, but only some of us are brave enough to never let our artist go. I love the way in which Mana has brought this simple reality to life for visiting children.

We spent a lot of time in the kids room, interacting with a few other youngsters and parents and then continued on.

My next favorite stop and grateful moment was through the open doors of the Armitage Gone! Dance studio. One of the dancers (at least, I'm assuming he is a member of the company) welcomed us (WCH and I, the Love of My Life watched through the glass). A lifelong dancer, I was so excited to walk into a real rehearsal studio with WCH, and of course, she had no idea about my excitement (nor would have understood what it meant). The dancer tried to do plies with WCH ("Elevator up! Elevator down!" -- so cute!) but she was overcome with a sudden bout of uncharacteristic shyness. So I spun her around to face the mirror and showed her her reflection. I opened her arms wide and "big!" and then closed them tight and "small!" She got the concept and followed me as I jumped my feet and hands apart and then contracted into a ball, laughing all the way. But she was over it as soon as she was into it and it wasn't until we turned around to leave that I noticed the Love of My Life through the glass with a huge grin on his face. He got what that moment was to me.

It was another thrill to see Karole Armitage herself, "the punk ballerina," in another gallery, but she was chatting so I didn't want to interrupt or disturb her with my fangirling. So, "Hi Karole!"

Without going through every detail of our visit, suffice to say that soon after this point (about an hour-plus) into our visit, WCH had enough and began the Signs of Impending Meltdown. So, I didn't get to see the "Making Art Dance" exhibition (one of the main things I wanted to see!), which displays 30 years of the backdrops and costumes of the Armitage Foundation. Thankfully it's up until March 13, so I'll be back (maybe alone on a Mom-Time Adventure or on a Date Night).

Nor did we make it to many of the other exhibitions, all of which sound stunning (some we did get to basically run through, but when a meltdown is imminent, it really doesn't count). Check out the full lineup of exhibitions and events here.

What a place to soothe my adult itch to take in some culture and creation. To simultaneously feel comfortable enough to bring my daughter, and have her equally enjoy the experience in her own way was an extra super bonus for which I'm quite grateful.

I'm in love with Mana Contemporary and I cannot wait for our second date.

Seek out Jersey City's art mecca on the interwebs: