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Shai Baitel

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Me(c)ca Is Actually in Jersey City

Posted: 04/30/2012 4:57 pm

When the first Muslim faithfuls started paying their religious dues to Islam and made their annual hajj ('pilgrimage') to Mecca, they did not realize how popular the name of the city, the religion's holiest, would become. Based in the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, Mecca is the place where Muslims believe Muhammad was born and the Quran was received. The obligation for every Muslim to make the hajj at least once in his or her life, marks the pinnacle of the personal connection to Mecca and the Kaaba, the holy cube structure, in its center.

Because of the unparalleled cultural phenomenon of the millions of pilgrims Mecca receives every year, the city's name turned into a popular synonym that often times describe places of importance and the with power to attract groups of often like-minded people.

But how do we get from city having become synonymous with a place that attracts to New Jersey? It is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Let us consider the following: More than a decade ago, visionary business entrepreneur Moishe Mana acquired a complex of abandoned industrial buildings, amounting to a million square feet, in Jersey City. He had not yet quite grasped the enormous potential these buildings with the somewhat dreary façades would have. Together with his team of executives, led by Eugene Lemay, and joined by Yigal Ozeri, an accomplished painter and, in a sense, a renaissance man, the previously abandoned buildings they are gradually turning an amazing vision into reality.

Still a bit under the proverbial radar screen, they have been developing an arts center, which more than promises to be one of the most important, most influential ones in Greater New York, the Tri-State area, maybe even in the United States. Yes, it is easily, and rapidly, becoming a new Mecca of artists, and arts collectors, and arts aficionados.

With the dream of almost unlimited space fulfilled, the center is divided into a several sections. These sections already cover many facets, such fine arts, visual arts, dance, theater, and design. And more are to come in the near future. More than 80 artists have their studio at the center already. A few magnificent galleries spaces of world-class standard have been created. They co-exist next to the leading arts storage facilities, equipped with the latest technologies, and housing works of some of the more important museums, galleries, and private collections.

A look back: Moishe Mana came to the United States in the early '80s, and like many newcomers, he was looking for a job to start his American dream. Being one man who had a truck, the moving business was a natural choice. With a keen business sense and entrepreneurial spirit, he succeeded in growing the man-with-a-van operation, within a decade, into the largest moving company in the Tri-State area, with today has a presence across the country. In addition, moving items of individuals and companies, made Mr. Mana realize the need for storage. In a logical next step his business expanded to storage facilities, which today is one of the most advanced operations in the world, with expertise in document filing, wine, furniture, clothing storage, and, yes, arts as well.

It was this storage of precious and valuable arts items stored in the Jersey City facilities that was the inspiration to dedicate some of the other spaces for exhibiting them. Eugene Lemay, the center's president and an accomplished artist in his own right, put it this way: It did not seem right to him, that some of the most magnificent pieces of art were stored away, wrapped up in boxes and crates, while, at the same time, there was ample space to exhibit many of them and have the public enjoy them.

It was philanthropist Eileen Kaminsky, who embraced this vision and was the first important collector to present works of her collection in the facility in May 2011. In her foundation's statement, she notes that "[d]edicated to expanding our understanding of contemporary art, [my foundation] exhibits collections usually hidden from the public eye... " Since then, several other exhibits have opened and allowed previously hidden treasures be accessible to the public.

In another milestone, just a month ago, the arts operation, now consolidated as Mana Contemporary, announced a new program called MECA. This new exhibit is the first in a series dedicated to arts from the Middle East. MECA implies the subject or origin of the artists, but it is actually the acronym for 'Middle East Center of the Arts.' A group of Israeli artists are presenting some of their works in an exhibit called, timely and challengingly, 'Spring 2012.' Twenty-two of Israel's leading artists of Bedouin, Christian, Druze, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, including Farid Abu Shakra, Anisa Ashkar, Raffi Lavie and Micha Ullman showcase with over 60 works of all disciplines in this unique show.

The future of this center, without question, will be as intriguing: MECA will focus on the concept of collaboration, with artists, curators, scholars, and institutions of different religious and cultural backgrounds, working together as a community. The shared goal is to broaden the perception and educate the greater public about the Middle East, combining divergent philosophies and beliefs that would otherwise not meet. The center's programs will include not only exhibitions, but also residencies for artists from the Middle East, lectures by experts and screenings of relevant films and documents. MECA might be providing only a glimpse into the many diverse activities of Mana Contemporary, with it's one million square feet of space. But it is certainly a good indicator.

What has started off as a straight forward storage facility for arts, which over time transformed space into a few dozens of artists studio, galleries space, professional workshops, and arts stores, is little by little turning into, not less, the new Mecca for arts. It is more than the mere exceptionally large space that impresses. It is Mana Contemporary's entire concept and mission that fascinates. Similarly to what Mecca means to many Muslims, this new center is quickly turning into the central hub of whole arts communities. As Eileen Kaminsky, the eminent arts collector put it in an interview last year: "Mana Contemporary is Mecca to me." It is even more than that: It is Mecca to all of us. And we learn that 'Me(c)ca' is actually in Jersey City.

 
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