Arts Culture

Inside Jersey City’s unique, vibrant SMUSH Gallery, a ‘neighborhood oddity’

"Lots of locals eventually find their way in, even if it's brief. Something finally gets them to walk through the door. A lot of times it's the odd thing you pass while you take your kids to school or on the way to the train. 'What the hell is in the window of this place now?' It’s a Pee-wee Herman Doll. It’s a TV set. It’s a person. Things are always changing based on what’s happening in the space. You will come in at some point. It’s unavoidable."

I recently met with Katelyn Halpern and Benedicto (Ben) Figueroa, the Co-Artistic Directors of SMUSH Gallery. From its Polaroid wall featuring five years worth of artists and patrons enjoying events to its charming storefront window that’s always populated by some new artwork, SMUSH is one of the most vibrant art spaces in Jersey City.

Read on to learn about the history, mission and goals of the organization, and don’t forget to purchase tickets for SMUSH’s Tropi-Papi Quinceañera (minus 10 we’re turning 5) Birthday Party, which is happening on Saturday, Feb.25 at 7 p.m.

What is your creative background and how did it land you at SMUSH Gallery?

Katelyn: I came up as a dancer and choreographer and, I guess you could say, a creative organizer. Where I grew up in Austin, Texas, I was surrounded by artists—musicians especially—and the “let’s start a band” ethos was all around us. Organizing shows and making stuff was totally normal, and I put on my first evening of dance when I was 16, a benefit show for my high school dance department. We did every kind of thing and were really lucky to be in a place that supported us. I grew up believing that things were possible, and I can draw a straight line from that belief to the founding of SMUSH.

By the time I got to New Jersey in 2010, I’d graduated college with a dance minor, and had gotten to do a lot of theater and collaborating on performance—usually not performing but choreographing, co-directing, producing, that kind of thing. That was all in Houston. It took a bit for me to find my creative footing here, and I really hit my stride when I formed up a little dance company in 2016. Not long after that I was taking poetry workshops, playing with other parts of my art practice, and just generally learning to trust myself. That was fun.

Black History Month Open Mic hosted by Golden Light Poetry x SMUSH (2023)

SMUSH arrived around that time almost by accident. I hadn’t been planning to open an art space, but the opportunity was too good and the timing was right, so I said, “I’ll do a little experiment and see how it goes.” Working in Jersey City in 2018 was very exciting for me. I had organizational skills from prior art projects and some very intense administrative skills from being a high school teacher, and I wanted to be around people making art. I thought, rather innocently, “Why not make a place where that can happen?”

Ben: I’m originally from Union City and I started organizing arts events at age 19. First I organized a reading series at a place that no longer exists in North Bergen, and I’ve been writing, jumping in and out of artist collectives, and making weird things ever since. As Poet Laureate of Union City for four years, I wrote a bunch of really wack poems for street naming ceremonies and stuff like that. I had to write a poem about beer for a historical marker they put on one of the first breweries in America, and another for a street naming ceremony dedicated to the guy who wrote the song “I Like To Move It (move it).” I also organized a lot of free community and art events for the general public.

I’ve been involved with SMUSH for a long time, and did a one person show at Shuaspace before it was SMUSH. Recently, we moved an armoire and were shocked to find a photo that had been hidden inside for years; it was a polaroid from the opening night of my show in December of 2017, which was one of the last things to happen in the space before it became SMUSH. Once SMUSH took over the space, I started doing shows there and participating in events. I took on the role of Co-Director in the spring of 2021.

What is the history and mission of SMUSH?

Katelyn: The factual stuff is that our first public event, Slyce of Lyfe—an interdisciplinary poetry-focused open mic conceived and hosted by Marcus Emel which brought in three features and others who could sign up on the spot, happened at the end of February 2018. A big impetus for starting SMUSH was that there was an existing art space at 340 Summit and the people who’d been running it were not able to continue doing so. Either someone had to step in and make it something or it would implode and be lost to time. Shuaspace had been running for several years and when the organizers moved to Detroit, they gave use of the space to a couple of different organizers including the Jersey City Arts Council. I was invited to install a labyrinth on the floor made of ribbon and packing tape for the JCAST Fall 2017 Streets of Jersey City show so I had work in there before knowing the space would become such a significant part of my life.

As far as the mission is concerned, I kinda just want to read you the LOI (letter of intent) I wrote yesterday.

Ben: Yeah, you answered the shit outta that.

Excerpts from LOI: “Our mission is to equitably advance vibrant, accessible, high-quality, and thought-provoking art and culture experiences within our Jersey City community. Our vision is to inspire and connect artists and community across discipline, culture, and experience for a brighter and more compassionate world. We subscribe to the principles of emergent strategy as articulated by adrienne maree brown, notably the fractal principle which asserts that the large is a reflection of the small: building our tiny, radical organization into the most adaptive, resilient vehicle we can is the best contribution we can make to our troubled world. 

Driven by a dedication to place, SMUSH was conceived as both an act of service and a curiosity itch-scratch meeting a unique opportunity. The intention was to offer back something dynamic, iterative, and full of possibility. To date, we have produced over 300 events and programs including two seasons of our innovative curatorial fellowship in dance, a beloved series of affordable art shows, boundary breaking immersive installations, and the only series of open mics hosted by a ghost.”

Is SMUSH a nonprofit organization?

Katelyn: Nope! We are not a nonprofit and choose not to be, not because we have or anticipate a lot of profit (hah!), but because the nonprofit structure is so cumbersome that it (in my estimation) shrinks the pool of people who can effectively participate, hold space and run things. The logical consequence of these clunky requirements and the administrative bloat needed to satisfy them is that particular types of arts organizations or structures pop up and get funding. I believe that there are other ways to make and share art, and it would be nice if funders didn’t fear those models for their difference.

We were recently selected for The Field’s Pilot Program for Social Justice Practitioners in the Arts, which gives us fiscal sponsorship and, through that, access to some very useful grant funding. Not only will the potential funding strengthen our organization, but we are excited to have received acknowledgement for the work we do to advance social justice through the way we run things. The fiscal sponsorship is a middle way; we don’t have to compromise by joining the nonprofit industrial complex, and we retain control over how we run our business.

It’s funny how when you start talking about art you start talking about money.

Ben: The reason we always end up talking about money when we talk about art is because so many people think that artists shouldn’t get paid for making their art. If that belief wasn’t so widespread, we wouldn’t have to talk about it all the time. We wouldn’t be so angry about it or feel so cheated like we have to fight or search or scrounge to find the money to fund those things.

Why Jersey City?

Katelyn: Because it’s where we live! There’s an idea in meditation / mindfulness that “this moment is the perfect teacher.” I switch the lens by telling myself, “This place is the perfect location.” Wherever you are is where you should be doing the thing that you’re trying to do because all places should have all the good things. [Laughs] If this is where we are, this is where we should do stuff. Not everyone agrees. Lots of people are fleeing to Brooklyn and farther. They may not feel that this is the place, but we do.

I arrived in Jersey City in 2014, so I’m a fairly recent transplant. Like many recent transplants, I landed here as much because of what was around Jersey City as because of what was in it, but I’ve realized that I just can’t live in a place without being involved in it. It doesn’t feel right to me. As Jersey City was becoming my second home, I got to know a lot of different parts and angles, as well as people and social currents and needs. We operate SMUSH with the objective of flowing with some of those currents and meeting some of those needs.

Being in the arts, I find it difficult to talk about Jersey City without mentioning New York. Jersey City is always in relationship with NYC in a way that NYC is not in relationship with us.  Though we are so close geographically and we work with New York artists, Jersey City is distinctly not New York. So there’s that. There’s a lot of movement here—people moving in and out of town, money moving through, development and redevelopment. This makes Jersey City an interesting, often challenging, place to build an organization. It’s a place that wants your blood the same way that New York does, but without the international cache. It takes either a very laid back or a scrappy kind of individual to sustain things here.

Ben: I started out just being here making things, and I think the staying and making has now become a kind of resistance work. I was initially here because there was a big, vibrant arts community that was very connected and supported. Over time, the city killed it on purpose and what survived was (obviously) the big art organizations and then the people who are doing resistance artwork and keeping small spaces alive. The people who keep making weird work, keep seeking out connections between smaller, underground arts organizations and artists.

What is SMUSH’s place in its local neighborhood?

Ben: SMUSH has old school Jersey City storefront energy, and is very different from a lot of other art spaces that are designed to look like some sort of Abercrombie and Fitch or Crate and Barrel flagship store with their huge, soulless panes of glass. It feels odd and really fun to walk up to a thing that could easily be a cell phone accessory store if we weren’t in there. Lots of locals eventually find their way in, even if it’s brief. Something finally gets them to walk through the door. A lot of times it’s the odd thing you pass while you take your kids to school or on the way to the train. “What the hell is in the window of this place now?” It’s a Pee-wee Herman Doll. It’s a TV set. It’s a person. Things are always changing based on what’s happening in the space. You will come in at some point. It’s unavoidable. We’re a neighborhood oddity in a really great way. I’ve witnessed entire families walking by with their eyes magnetized to the window. When they finally come in, they say things like, “Oh my god, we always talk about this place.”

Katelyn: And then I see them in the grocery store two days later.

What are your plans and goals going forward at SMUSH?

Katelyn: The main goal, which kind of has to be the plan, is to make what we do sustainable. Most immediately, that means paying ourselves for at least a portion of the work that we do, because until (literally) yesterday, all of the administrative and leadership work was on a volunteer basis. That is a death sentence for the organization. We can’t do that anymore with how much programming we offer. One way to make things more sustainable is by using creative approaches to get more money in the door through grassroots fundraising, grants, and fiscal sponsorship. Another is doing less work—running fewer programs. Already this year, we’re on track to either host or participate in around 35 events whereas in previous years it was between 60 and 80. We’re being a lot more thoughtful about what and how much we program. We want to maintain a feeling of fullness and quality while also setting ourselves up to do this for as long as possible.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve gone from seeing our primary value as being in the events we produce to dividing that value between those events and the space we hold in and for our community. I understand persistence to be of greater value than I did before. Part of that has to do with how rapidly Jersey City is changing. Skyscrapers are popping up everywhere, and the mayor is dedicated to thorough redevelopment of Journal Square, which is blocks away from us. Holding the space and holding our values in place is essential because we could very easily be swept away by the tide of these changes.

Ben: For this season, we have some pretty cool, big immersive installation pieces coming to the gallery under the theme of Climate Grief. Because these pieces take over the whole space, anything that happens in the gallery happens in the world the artists’ are creating. The artists we’re working with on these projects are creators that we have relationships with, and that we believe in and care about.

Katelyn: “In March there’ll be a show called Once She Dries about coral reefs, and in April there’ll be a Climate Grief Temple. We also have our fifth birthday on February 25, which is a party and a fundraiser. This year will be even more outrageous than previous years. It’s the “Tropi-Papi Quinceañera (minus 10 we’re turning 5) Birthday Party”—tropical themed plus pink because it’s always pink. The party is designed to make it as fun as possible for people to give us money because we care very much about both of those things. There’s usually crafts, games, a little thank you from us, and always cake! Our pick-a-plaques and silent auction are offered both online and in person because although our work is very based in place, there are people who care about SMUSH across the country.

There will also be two more seasonal community potlucks—spring and summer, a GOMO open mic, and monthly Work/Shares on Zoom. In May, we’re going to do the fourth installment of our Zero to 90: A Very Affordable Art Show. And we’d love to bring back our Curatorial Fellowship in Dance in future seasons.

Will either of you grace us with any final parting words?

Katelyn: I want to say that we really enjoy doing this. We like getting to know artists and their projects and their ideas. We like growing with them over time. We like seeing people not only share more of themselves, but try things. I guess what I’m trying to find a short way to say (and it’s not working) is that people come into SMUSH via a point of entry usually tied to a specific discipline, and a very short time later they’re either sharing that they work in multiple disciplines or experimenting in multiple disciplines. For example, someone who came in as a visual artist is now hosting most of our open mics. A poet had our most successful visual art show. You get to be fully yourself at SMUSH. It’s a blessing, and also something we insist on.