From the June/July 2015 Issue:

Art Districts and Red Bank

    By: John Zeaman |

What makes for an interesting downtown art scene?

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enlarge | Discover Jersey Arts named Red Bank as the people’s “Favorite Downtown Arts District” for 2015. Courtesy of the Red Bank Visitors Center
How often have you heard it said that art is magical? I’m sure I’ve used the word myself. But there’s a sense, in addition to the aesthetic one, in which art is thought to be magical. That is in the area of real estate and downtown rejuvenation.

Everyone has heard the familiar gentrification tale in which an old downtown or industrial area is settled by artists who appreciate its cheap rents and big commercial spaces. Pretty soon the area becomes an interesting bohemian enclave. The next thing you know, it’s home to lawyers and fashion models, boutiques and cheese shops. The pattern has been repeated numerous times in New York City from SoHo to Williamsburg.

Having witnessed these magical transformations, it didn’t take long for real estate speculators and chamber-of-commerce types to try to jump-start the process.

In Paterson in the 1980s, for example, the new Great Falls District converted mill buildings to artist lofts, hoping for the kind of gentrification that had occurred in Hoboken and Jersey City. In Newark, the owners of large, multifloor buildings have welcomed art galleries rent free in an effort to create the kind of cultural aura that will attract paying tenants and loft-buyers.

In Boston, developer Mario Nicosia didn’t wait for a neighborhood’s gradual transition from dumpy to hip for someone to bestow a catchy acronym, so he invented SoWa, short for “South of Washington,” a mill and warehouse district now known for its galleries, elegant lofts, design studios and expensive restaurants.

Not too long ago, I saw an Internet item about a competition for New Jersey’s “Favorite Downtown Arts District” for 2015. The results were based on a survey of some 15,000 residents by Discover Jersey Arts, a promotional group supported by the N.J. State Council on the Arts. The contestants were Red Bank, Montclair, Princeton, Morristown, Newark, New Brunswick, Asbury Park, Millville, Hammonton and Rahway.

I found it a little hard to believe these mostly suburban towns had real art districts. But all, apparently, had claims to reinvention with “the arts” playing a significant role. The winner for this year was Red Bank.

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enlarge | The Beacon Fine Arts Gallery stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays to catch the after-dinner crowd and those coming from the Count Basie Theatre. “You never know what celebrity is going to walk in here,” owner David Griswold says. Courtesy of Beacon Fine Arts Gallery
Commercial downfall
I had gotten to know Red Bank in the early 1980s when I vacationed with my family in a nearby shore town. Although its population was only about 12,000, it served as the central city for the surrounding towns. It had a hospital, a large marina, a grand hotel—the Molly Pitcher Inn—and a big shopping district with handsome brick and limestone buildings. It was a pleasant, if not a very busy or exciting place. Unfortunately, its commercial life was already being strangled by the strip malls and big-box stores along nearby Route 35 and other roads. It went into a depression following the stock market crash of 1987, after which pundits began derisively referring to it as “Dead Bank.”

By that time, however, we were no longer visiting the area. I never saw Red Bank at its worst, nor did I witness its revitalization, which began in the early 1990s with the designation of a downtown special improvement district and a business-government partnership called RiverCenter. Businesses in the district were assessed a special tax, and the money was used for improvements such as brick sidewalks, plantings, stylish streetlights and parking lots. There also were street festivals, free concerts, fireworks displays and lavish Christmas lights. An old movie house became the Count Basie Theatre, named for the jazz great who was born in Red Bank and which has hosted acts such as Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Brian Wilson, George Carlin, David Sedaris and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. In 2005, Red Bank got a live drama venue with the opening of the Two Rivers Theater Company, with its large performance space and a small, black-box theater.

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enlarge | The Chetkin Gallery, established in 1987, is in a historic building near the waterfront and features works with European character and a French accent. Courtesy of Chetkin Gallery
New awakenings
All of this I read on the Internet. I’d seen nothing firsthand for almost 30 years. Feeling like Rip Van Winkle (plus 10), I drove to this borough on the Navesink River one Saturday for a look. I was particularly interested in what might be there in the way of art galleries, this being my specialty. As I entered the town, I saw signs directing me to the “Arts and Antiques District.”

Indeed, Red Bank is transformed, more changed than I could have imagined. Buildings that once looked old and interesting now looked old and elegant. Everything was spiffed up. A steady stream of people strolled the brick sidewalks beneath antique lamps and a grand old street clock. The mom-and-pop retail stores had been replaced with specialty food shops (one just for olive oil), coffee bars, boutiques, swank shops such as Tiffany’s and Coco Pari and restaurants with hip, one-word names such as Dish, Catch, Teak and Red. A popular tourist attraction is Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, a comic book store owned by another native son, filmmaker Kevin Smith. He bought the store with money earned from his cult hit Clerks. It’s now the subject of AMC reality show “Comic Book Men,” now in its fourth year. A group of buildings on Front Street, the Antique Center of Red Bank, houses dozens of antiques vendors. A jewelry store had a designer working in the window.

But places selling paintings or sculpture were less plentiful. The first one I found was the Beacon Gallery, which specializes in landscapes and still lifes by contemporary realists working in the comfortable traditions of the Hudson River School and American impressionism. Owner David Griswold, who started the gallery in 1999, is boosterish on Red Bank. He stays open until 9:30 on Friday and Saturday nights to catch the after-dinner crowd and those coming from the Count Basie Theatre. “They have amazing shows,” he says. “You never know what celebrity will walk in here.”

The Chetkin Gallery, established in 1987 by Don and Carol Lynn Chetkin, is in a charming historic building near the waterfront. The art has a distinctly European character and a French accent. The artists are contemporary, but like those at Beacon, working in older traditions. Favorite subjects are outdoor cafes and the kind of countryside scenes favored by Monet, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

The owners of Beacon and Chetkin describe their artists and many of their clientele as “international.” Neither wants to be known as a gallery selling local art.

The Art Alliance of Monmouth County’s gallery is the opposite with all local artists. The non-profit, cooperative gallery began in 1978. Its membership is huge —250 to 300 dues-paying members—which means only a fraction can show in their storefront gallery at any one time. Countless styles are in evidence—realism, fantasy, primitive, abstract, expressionism and more. What it lacks in polish and high-gloss professionalism it makes up for with its adventurous, contemporary feel.

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enlarge | The Art Alliance of Monmouth County, a non-profit, cooperative gallery, features art with an adventurous, contemporary feel. Courtesy of Art Alliance of Monmouth County
Growing Challenges
In talking to present and past members of the Red Bank gallery scene, I began to understand the pressures facing gallery owners today. There’s been a lot of turnover. Galleries that used to be in Red Bank include the Laurel Tracy Gallery, the Kingsley Art Gallery, Butterfly Gallery, Art Forms Gallery, Cel-Ebration Animation Gallery and Gallery U. Some owners simply retired. Others couldn’t afford the rent in now-gentrified Red Bank and found cheaper digs elsewhere. Still others gave up entirely on a bricks-and-mortar gallery and changed their venue to the Internet. One gallery, Asher Neiman, advertised, but never actually opened.

One of the gallerists who fled to the Internet is Judy Feldman, who ran the Kingsley Art Gallery for 15 years before closing in 2009. “Rents got ridiculously high,” she says. In 2008, she considered moving from her location in the mall-like Galleria to a better space, but the landlord was asking $6,000 a month. “This isn’t New York City,” she says. “You can’t do enough business to support that kind of rent.” The problem now is that she must compete with virtual galleries. “They may have a beautiful website, but in reality it’s someone sitting at home in his pajamas.”

In the middle of the Broad Street business district, I spotted a sign reading, “Gotham Fine Art Gallery and Speakeasy.” Entering the front door, I found myself in a dark, slightly sinister looking bar-restaurant, part Prohibition Era and part Batman comic. It was far from a gallery, but it did have art. Really expensive art.

One featured artist was Bill Mack, who made his reputation doing bronze reliefs of sports figures for various halls of fame. Among the works in Gotham is a portrait of Bruce Springsteen jamming on his guitar. Part of its value is that it’s painted on a piece of metal scavenged from the famed H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D sign of Hollywood Hills. It can be had for $90,000. His abstracted hollow sculpture of Catwoman sells for $97,000. It’s less a gallery trying to sell art and more of a restaurant using art to create the impression of a high-class joint.

Art—at least the kind on canvas and paper —doesn’t appear to have played an important role in Red Bank’s revival. The town’s reinvigoration was never the classic urban story of a bohemian gentrification. Of its 400 businesses, only a few are art related. That’s not to say Red Bank hasn’t promoted its art as an attraction. And in the area of the performing arts, it delivered. With the visual arts, however, it has often had to fudge a little. In its last “Art Walk,” in 2013, for example, only a handful of the 18 venues were real art galleries. The rest were coffeeshops, restaurants, a bank and other non-art businesses that were happy enough to hang a few paintings to fill out the event.

Margaret Mass, director of the Red Bank Visitors’ Center, acknowledges attrition and turnover among Red Bank galleries, but points to a new one on the horizon. She says auto dealer and art collector Ken Schwarz will soon open the Wanderlust Gallery, featuring pop art in a building adorned with bright mural designs and a roof sculpture. The sculpture will be based on an iconic 1930s photograph of steelworkers having a precarious lunch on a girder high above Manhattan streets.

As my visit drew to a close, Saturday night was blooming. Cooking smells drifted from the local kitchens. There was excitement in the air. The stores that were staying open, like Urban Outfitters, turned on their window lights. People began arriving for dinner reservations.

Along Broad Street, parking valets—young men in white shirts and black vests—were setting up for business, serving all visitors to the downtown for $7. That alone was a scene I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journ­al­ists (New Jersey chapter) and the Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club.