Miami-Dade County

For future of Wynwood, look to Jersey City. Yes. Jersey City.

Entrance to Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, N.J.
Entrance to Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, N.J.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. Moving-company and arts mogul Moishe Mana’s grand but hazy vision for his extensive holdings in Miami’s mushrooming Wynwood district, which calls for a mini-city built around “culture,” starts to solidfy once you see his sprawling Mana Contemporary art center in this once-forsaken industrial town.

Mana spent millions to turn a complex of century-old brick warehouse and factory buildings into a bright, bustling campus that caters to the full ecology of the visual arts in an all-inclusive way that’s not been tried before. There are artists’ studios, a foundry, vast exhibition spaces, state-of-the-art storage and galleries for private collectors, offices and archives for major art foundations, even an art school, all combined with crating, framing, restoration and shipping services.

The twist: This is no vanity project. It’s a money-maker.

The Israeli-born, New York-based entrepreneur hopes to replicate the Mana Contemporary concept on 24 acres of mostly vacant land he owns in Wynwood as part of a broader, and controversial, plan that’s up for its first review and vote Thursday at the Miami City Commission. Mana wants the land substantially upzoned so he can also build offices and workshops for tech companies, a trade center focused on Latin America, hotels and high-rise condos or apartments affordable to artists and the young creative types now flocking to Wynwood for work and play.

As in Jersey City, the idea is to develop a close-knit, collaborative creative community by offering integrated services and facilities, and using some of the revenue from rents and fees to support exhibitions and other public programs, Mana’s collaborators say. One key element is significant participation of artists, said Eugene Lemay, who is often described as Mana’s right-hand man.

“Most developers are interested in bringing in artists to increase value, and then the artists can’t afford it. We’re a different kind of developer,” said Lemay, who manages Mana’s web of businesses and is himself a respected artist. “We are going to build a city, but it’s built around culture. It’s not just the real estate.”

But, Lemay adds: “It has to be profitable and a sustainable business.”

Despite misgivings from Mana Wynwood’s neighbors that its size would overwhelm the low-rise warehouse district, the plan was endorsed by the board of the local Business Improvement District, a city-chartered agency that’s championed controlled development to preserve the area’s modest scale, enhance its walkability and foster development of housing, so far the key missing piece in turning Wynwood into a true neighborhood.

Mana and his planner, Bernard Zyscovich, reshaped the project to better weave it into the surrounding blocks, and BID leaders said they were excited by their plans to bring in major national and international arts groups to Wynwood.

Among those who have agreed to participate in Mana’s Wynwood project, his organization said this week:

▪ An expansion of the school run by New York’s International Center of Photography, which recently moved its extensive photo archives to Mana’s Jersey City facility, where it also opened an exhibition gallery.

▪ Exhibition space for the Ayn Foundation, which has supported the creation and exhibition of large-scale works by big-name artists such as Dan Flavin and Andy Warhol, and is sponsoring a long-term exhibition by Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer at Mana Contemporary.

▪ Renown contemporary ballet choreographer Karole Armitage’s Armitage Gone! Dance company, which is based at Mana’s Jersey City complex, where visitors can watch dancers rehearse through a glass wall. In Wynwood, visitors will view the staging of works from initial choreography to final dress rehearsals.

▪ Florida International University plans to move its arts and broadcasting programs to Mana Wynwood and establish an art, design and architecture institute there in partnership with the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, the present-day successor to the famed Modernist arts and crafts school that profoundly influenced 20th Century design and architecture.

▪ The Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation, which operates exhibition space and studios for emerging artists at Mana’s Jersey City facility, has already launched an artist residency program in collaboration with Mana in Wynwood, offering six free studio spaces at one of his buildings, a former apartment house.

Mana is also in “serious discussions” with prominent Miami architects to establish a museum similar to one in the Jersey City complex that houses more than 400 models of designs by famed architect Richard Meier, said Shai Baitel, Mana Contemporary’s senior vice president.

Baitel said Mana’s approach to Wynwood has changed “dramatically” since he bought property before and during the economic crash to now focus primarily on programming and “content,” rather than a straight real-estate deal designed for maximum profit. Part of the goal: To build on the momentum of the annual Art Basel Miami Beach extravaganza beyond the one week it’s held, and to retain young Miami artists and “creatives” who now decamp for New York and L.A. in search of support, work and opportunities.

“We want those people to stay. Wynwood has become the place for them,” Baitel said. “So what is the contribution that will make it more exciting, more contributing to the community? We’re thinking in terms of the next generation. He definitely seems himself as one of those people who can make a difference in a community.”

Mana, a law-school dropout from Tel Aviv, moved to New York in the 1980s and, after working a series of odd jobs, got a van and began offering his services as a mover. That single van was the unlikely foundation of what became a moving-and-storage empire extending into storage of documents, art and wine. The acquisition of commercial properties for storage then launched him into development.

He was an early investor in Manhattan’s now uber-fashionable Meatpacking District in the 1980s, when it was a gritty landscape of plants taken over at night by street prostitutes and extreme-sex clubs. Mana helped set up Milk Studios in a rehabbed industrial building across from what’s now the wildly popular Chelsea Market, and though he sold that property he still retains a partnership in the fashion and photo facility, Baitel said.

Mana’s search for warehousing facilities took him to Jersey City, a decaying industrial town now undergoing a revival that sits a 15-minute ride on the PATH train from lower Manhattan. The seed for what in 2011 became Mana Contemporary was planted when he and Lemay began investigating the fine-arts storage business. They discovered that thousands of collections were hidden away in storage, rarely seeing the light of day, and hit on a novel strategy: Offer collectors not just storage but also galleries to show their art, and curators to help them mount cohesive exhibitions.

Aside from the main building — a former tobacco warehouse and plant that was later turned into a storage facility before Mana fully rehabbed it — Mana Contemporary now comprises six other buildings and about 25 acres, with more than two million square feet of space. That includes an expansive, high-ceilinged industrial building converted into Meier-designed exhibition space Mana’s people say is the largest in the country; 150 spacious artist studios; Gary Lichtenstein Edition’s high-end silkscreening studio; and hundreds of private collections and arts institutions. It’s all overseen by a core staff of about 100 people.

Artnet News in 2015 pronounced the facility “stunning,” though it’s not yet well known in the broader art world. Exhibitions drawn from its collections — including two shows Mana installed in his Wynwood warehouses for Art Basel last December — have received glowing reviews.

Mana is now planning an expansion that will add more studios, on-site micro-apartments for artists, and performance space.

“It’s unbelievable, and it’s getting better and better,” said Eileen Kaminsky, whose foundation brings in about 45 emerging and mid-career artists from all around the world to work at Mana Contemporary every year on a stipend, making available to them the full panoply of services and opportunities for collaborations the place offers.

“We’re looking for artists who want to experiment, to try something new, and we hook them up,” she said. “It’s really inspiring.”