Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 21 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Joseph S. Bell-Bey’s abstract acrylics were pretty cool.  I particularly liked his deep blue one.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens
Joseph S. Bell-Bey, “Bye Bye Bluebird”

In the late 1960s a group of business and community leaders in Jamaica, Queens decided to do something to try to arrest the decline of the Jamaica Avenue shopping district.  Among other strategies, they decided their neighborhood needed a new arts institution.

The City abandoning its beautiful, Italian Renaissance-style Queens Register of Titles & Deeds building around the same time created an opportunity for some adaptive reuse, and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning was born in 1972.

Jamaica Center for Arts and LearningProgramming at JCAL heavily emphasizes the performing arts, film screenings and lectures.  JCAL’s main building has a theater, and it manages a nearby church building as a converted performing arts space. Classes are also a big part of the mission, including workshops and after-school programs for kids.

The JCAL building also houses a pair of gallery spaces, where it puts on several art exhibitions each year.  It’s in that capacity that I paid a visit.

What’s on at JCAL

The Jamaica Center’s two ground floor gallery spaces comprise about 1,500 square feet for displaying art.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, QueensThe first space has a beautiful tiled floor, thick columns, and a piano. One wall displays a semi-permanent exhibit of work by a local artist named Emmett Wigglesworth, who does jazzy, figurative paintings.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, QueensThe opposite wall currently hosts an exhibit called “Memory.” This consisted of a number of African sculptures and masks collected by a woman named Ms. Hazel Louise Woods-Sanders. Weirdly, the curator of the exhibit states in the wall text that he didn’t know Sanders, and there’s apparently little to no documentation of where the pieces come from, how she got them, or what they meant to her.  So these objects are more or less devoid of memory.  I would have called the show “Amnesia.”

The second, nicer and more polished gallery space at JCAL currently hosts a show called “Peace & Love.”

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens In this era it struck me as almost rebellious and countercultural to host an art exhibit that’s not angrily political. The art was a mixed bag, including found-object sculpture, highly representational painted and sculpted portraits, and some pretty abstractions.  I’m not sure they really hung together around the theme. The best show I’ve seen along those lines lately was the meditation on “home” at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens
Otto Neals, “Crocodile.” Polished bronze.

But there was engaging work nonetheless.  I liked Otto Neals’s friendly bronze crocodile.  Donovan Nelson’s impressionistic portraits of famous African Americans, typified by his smiling “Ali,” were pretty good, too.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens
Donovan Nelson, “Ali,” 2013. Acrylic.

Should You Visit the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning?

The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning provides an invaluable service to its community. It’s a place of culture and, well, learning that undoubtedly enriches its neighborhood. It reminds me quite a bit of the Clemente Center. However, that’s not the same as an institution that people from other parts of the city should necessarily detour to visit.  

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens
Emmett Wigglesworth, “Sitting and talking with the Spirit,” 2012. Oil Pastel, paper.

JCAL’s modest galleries are too small to do much. Windowless, they’re not the most congenial of spaces, either.  Maybe they blocked the windows in an effort to protect the art? Or to gain extra space to advertise on the exterior of the building.  Whatever the reason, I much prefer gallery spaces with natural light.

JCAL might be worth a side visit on a trek out to Jamaica for other reasons. Unfortunately there are not a lot of other reasons to go. Queens boasts some of the best dining in the city these days.  However, the wave of immigrant cooks and talented young chefs who have made neighborhoods like Flushing and Jackson Heights foodie destinations doesn’t seem to have reached Jamaica yet.

You catch the AirTrain to JFK in Jamaica, but I doubt many people would want to schlep bags to JCAL on the way to or from the airport.

As a possible bright spot, the very good King Manor Museum is in Jamaica. If you go visit the home of Hamilton’s pal Rufus King, it’s an easy detour to see what’s on at JCAL while you’re there.

For Reference:

Address  161-04 Jamaica Ave, Jamaica, Queens, NY
Website  jcal.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free