He Built It, They Came—Now Eugene Lemay Plans to Spread Mana Contemporary across the Atlantic

Karen Kedmey
May 20, 2015 8:00PM

Mana Contemporary founder and executive director Eugene Lemay with his work at Mana Contemporary, December 2013. [Artwork pictured: Eugene Lemay, Untitled: Strata, 2013.] Photo by E. Lee Smith. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Eugene Lemay, artist, and founder and president of Mana Contemporary, has proved that if you build it, they will come. In 2011, he and his partners (including fellow artist Yigal Ozeri), began the transformation of a former tobacco warehouse in Jersey City, New Jersey, into a hub of artists’ studios, exhibition spaces, dance studios, art storage and fabrication facilities, and much more. These are housed in a collection of mostly low-slung brick and glass buildings, and united by a lively café, the place’s social node. At lunchtime, it is filled with artists, administrators, collectors, curators, educators, and curious visitors—which is precisely the large and growing community that Mana aims to serve, and which turns out to be willing to travel to take advantage of the complex’s impressive offerings.

Panoramic view of Mana Contemporary’s 2 million-square-foot campus in Jersey City, NJ. Photo by Adam Cohen. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.


But the project started with resistance. It is part of Moishe’s Moving and Storage company, founded and owned by Moishe Mana, who asked Lemay to look into branching the company’s business model into art storage. “I didn’t want to do it,” Lemay told me when I sat down with him in his own studio at Mana Contemporary. “My fear was, it’s very competitive, it’s a very hard business. But he pushed me and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to look into it. What does the market have, what don’t they have, and how can I do it?’”

The Keating Foundry at Mana Contemporary, October 2014. Photo by Crystal Gwyn. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Lemay discovered a need for effective collection management coupled with storage, and he noticed a lack of space where private collections could be displayed. He also determined that closer connections could be built between collectors and artists. “So I said, ‘Okay, I would create art storage but focusing on the collectors,’” he recalls. “Management was my purpose, and showing the collection was another purpose, so I built a huge gallery to show collections. I knew that if I could get the collectors here, they would bring their friends. And food for collectors is artists. That was the starting point of the business model.”

From these beginnings at Mana’s inaugural and expanding site in Jersey City—where projects like adding more studio space and a boutique hotel are currently in the works—the institution is opening outposts across the United States, and it is on the verge of going international.

Mana studio artist Aaron Young creates artwork using motorcycles in Mana Glass Gallery, November 2013. Photo by E. Lee Smith. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Armitage Gone! Dance performs during a private reception for Making Art Dance, December 15, 2014. Photo by Joe Schildhorn. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Artsy: You build the space, you put the people in it, and you let the relationships happen. That’s the idea?

Eugene Lemay: Exactly.

Artsy: Is it fair to say that Mana reflects the dream you had for yourself as an artist?

EL: It’s a lot of what I love myself, but I think it also comes from my experience of living on a kibbutz for ten years.

Artsy: Did you grow up on a kibbutz?

EL: Yes. I grew up from 13 to 24 on a kibbutz in Israel. And I think I brought all these positive elements from the kibbutz, like sharing resources, and communicating what you really want to do, and living your dreams. And everybody says to me, “Mana has a kibbutz feeling, because you have this element of sharing and people are helping other people.”

Mana Contemporary Chicago café. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Dana Major’s studio at Mana Contemporary Chicago. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Artsy: Does Mana fill a void? Does it fill a niche? Or is it an entirely new model?

EL: I really believe Mana is a new model. I think there’s a problem in the art world: we all focus on the final product and the price of the final product. And that’s okay, I have nothing against that, but I think there’s a void. And the issue is the process. The collector, or the institution even, they’re not able to see the process.

I hope people copy me because this model is very energetic, alive, process-oriented, and gives you much more than the final product. And that’s really the interest, because there are so many collectors and they need to go deeper into the art. That’s what I hope that we do. And that’s why I’m expanding to Miami, Chicago, L.A., London, because I hope people will copy me. I think this is a model that the art world needs.

Mana Contemporary Chicago exterior. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Artsy: So tell me about your plans for the future. You have a space in Chicago.

EL: We opened up Chicago about a year and three months ago, and we have a space now in Miami.

Artsy: Right, which is not finished yet?

EL: None of the spaces are finished. I hope they don’t finish, because, you have to understand, it’s the art world. If you stop something, it’s, “Oh, I’ve seen that.” We have to create this excitement all the time.

Barbara Kasten in her studio at Mana Contemporary Chicago. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Artsy: Is that part of the motivation for expanding, to keep the excitement going?

EL: Yes, to keep the excitement going, new things happening, finding some communities in Chicago that needed something that we don’t have in New York—this is all part of it. In Chicago, I went to the major art schools and I said, “I’m giving you space for free, and you’re going to create programs there.” We created an incubator space. But outside of that, we really demonstrated that an artist in Chicago, in the Midwest, has to have a studio. You educate young artists coming out of school about the importance of a studio.

In Miami, we have six major blocks in Wynwood. The idea is, you create a community, but different from New York or Chicago. So it’s going to be a flavor of Latin America, for sure. A major portion of it will be music—that’s the big thing there—and an element of fashion. There’s definitely going to be an element of graffiti. 

Mana Miami exterior. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Installation view, Mana Miami 2014. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

Artsy: So that’s Chicago and Miami. And then you mentioned L.A., and London?

EL: So in L.A., I’m working on a major building, a million square feet. It was a former jailhouse. The city wants us to do it; the mayor wants us to do it. They understand the model. They’re giving us major concessions to do this project. But also, it’s the right place in my opinion. We don’t have the building yet. We’re in the process of negotiating a deal.

Artsy: Tell me about London.

EL:  With London, the city came to us. They wanted to give us the Old Vic, but it was too small. You have to understand, to create a community, you need 1,000 to 2,000 people. So it wouldn’t fit. But then they came back to us and we’re still working.

Mana Contemporary founders Yigal Ozeri and Eugene Lemay (L-R). Photo by Crystal Gwyn.

Artsy: Are there other cities on your mind right now?

EL: I’m looking into Detroit and Berlin. And then that’s enough for me—I mean, for the next couple years.

Karen Kedmey