A Man, a Van, a Plan - Moving Magnate Is the Impresario Behind Mana Contemporary

New York Times - July 20, 2014

JERSEY CITY — A year after its opening, the Mana Contemporary arts complex, on 35 acres here, remains largely unknown to the artgoing public. So does the man for whom it’s named.

“So Moishe’s the man with a van and a plan?” asked Lisa Dennison, the chairwoman of Sotheby’s North and South America, who was impressed by the ambition of the space on a recent visit.

The Mana is for Moishe Mana. He owns Moishe’s Moving and Storage, a nationwide company, and when he suggested to Eugene Lemay, his trusted right hand of 30 years, that he wanted to get into the art storage business, Mr. Lemay insisted that art couldn’t be handled like furniture. But when he looked into it, he noticed that collectors were keeping millions of dollars’ worth of art in dungeonlike storage spaces. Why not build an entire arts complex where work would be stored so collectors could visit it and show it off?

Mr. Mana has since spent tens of millions of dollars building his conglomeration of profit and nonprofit spaces in a former factory and warehouse area near Journal Square. The complex occupies almost a million square feet — more than five Walmarts — and growing. It includes studios, galleries, a rehearsal space, a Middle Eastern art center and a museum of Richard Meier’s architectural models. Marina Abramovic will lead a performance piece using crowds there in October, and Jeffrey Deitch will organize an exhibition with the choreographer and dancer Karole Armitage in December.

But because Mr. Lemay is the chief executive of Mana Contemporary, he is the one who is photographed and quoted at the organization’s many public events, not Mr. Mana, who is impish with a sunny spirit that may be a little unchecked for the art world.

“But I did study some art history in college in Tel Aviv,” he likes to tell people. “And I’m learning more and more about it every day. I just have to do more listening.”

And so, when Mr. Lemay speaks, Mr. Mana is all ears. Mr. Lemay is an artist. He became one in the early 1990s, about a decade after he started working for Mr. Mana, and his big, brooding canvases now show around the world. Mr. Mana is as proud as he is surprised that his associate is a creative success.

“I remember moving artists in the early days,” he was telling Mr. Lemay as he drove a black Mercedes sedan from Manhattan into the Holland Tunnel toward Jersey City for a recent art opening. “And when they said they couldn’t afford my rate, I told them if they couldn’t make a living from their art, then they should find real jobs and keep art as a hobby.”

Mr. Lemay, a pale man with a serious countenance, winced then laughed.

“Gene, you did exactly what I said,” Mr. Mana continued as he sat in tunnel traffic with the sanguine air of a man who has driven in far more stressful circumstances. “You couldn’t afford being an artist when you came to work for me, but you worked hard and now you can.”

Although Moishe’s Moving doesn’t air its financials, the company, the umbrella for a double octopus of 15 businesses — including real estate development; media; and wine, fashion and document storage — has an estimable net worth. Mana Contemporary has the added draw of both a foundry (it recently manufactured a Richard Serra model) and a high-end silk-screening operation, and Mr. Mana now has a similar venture in Chicago. In Miami, where Mr. Mana invested in a group of buildings covering five blocks, Mana will host an art fair to coincide with Art Basel in December.

“Gene is a person who takes on a lot,” Mr. Mana said. “And he never complains.”

Their company’s rough-and-tumble birth story involves, according to Mr. Mana, incidents like having a gun held to his head by the suspicious neighbor of a client and sleeping in a warehouse with a guard dog to keep it from being burned down by competitors.

“When John Gotti called, I told him to come and shoot me now,” said Mr. Mana, who at 56 still has smooth olive skin and a youthful stride. He arrived from Israel as a law school dropout. “For years,” he said, “it was only about survival.”

In Mr. Lemay, who shared an Israeli background, he found someone akin to a brother to help move furniture and then build a far-reaching empire.

“Our whole life we are one with each other,” Mr. Mana said.

For him, an art mecca is a lure for drawing inhabitants from across state lines to residences that he plans to develop into what he calls “TriBeCa West.” “New Jersey still has a stigma, but that is going to change,” he said.

Their storage clients already include two of Manhattan’s most important art museums, the collection of the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, and others. The complex typically shows several exhibitions at once, free to the public. Shows of Judy Chicago and Resnick are among those currently on display.

“If you build it, they will come,” Mr. Mana said as he pulled into his art center.

A chic crowd of 80 had gathered for an exposition of artists organized by Ray Smith, a resident artist, at Mana’s new Glass Gallery, one of the largest exhibition spaces in the country with 50,000 square feet of open space (nearly the size of a football field), with its interior designed by Mr. Meier. Guests for a private dinner at a mirrored banquet table roamed around looking at works for sale by artists including Julian Schnabel, Ai Weiwei and Alex Katz.

Most did not know the man behind the Mana was Moishe.

“That’s just beautiful,” said Yvonne Force Villareal, of the Art Production Fund.

And now, Ms. Dennison of Sotheby’s said, “all he has to do is figure out the Holland Tunnel traffic.” (The Journal Square PATH station is a 10-minute walk.)

Just before a speech by Ms. Abramovic about her fall 72-hour performance with 10,000 participants (moved in and out of six-hour sessions), and an announcement about Mr. Deitch’s exhibition from the archive of the in-residence Armitage Gone! Dance company, Mr. Mana stared at Mr. Lemay’s looming black canvas. It was about Mr. Lemay’s time in the Israeli Army. Under the canvas, a pile of rubble added to the feeling of devastation.

“It’s so dark and sad,” Mr. Mana said.

“I lost a lot of friends when I was in the military,” Mr. Lemay replied.

A silence passed between them. Then a smile lifted Mr. Mana’s face.

“I bet your next work will have flowers growing from all this darkness,” he said.

“Actually, I’m already doing that,” Mr. Lemay said.

Mr. Mana put his arm around Mr. Lemay and sighed

“See? We always think alike,” he said. “We are one.”