Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino have a conversation with Jim Watt, an artist who lives and works in Asbury Park. This wide-ranging discussion touches on many aspects of what qualities a city should incorporate to be classified as “arts-centric”. Jim’s perspective as an artist, architect and now filmmaker unpacks his distinction of perception versus reality in this 15,000 person city. Does Asbury Park “check the box” for arts vibrancy? Listen and find out.

Learn more about Jim and his work at his website.

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Jim Watt (00:00):
There is an arts community here. Now we can debate its level of vibrancy, but it is possible here that amazing things in the world of the arts could happen every day.

Mike Sodano (00:16):
Welcome To the Arts Rule Podcast, providing insight, analysis and dialogue, highlighting the arts vibrant landscape of small to medium sized cities, guiding you to determine where to visit, work, and live with an arts centric focus. I’m Mike Sno.

Nancy Sabino (00:34):
And I’m Nancy Sabino.

Nancy Sabino (00:37):
When We started Arts Rule, we wanted to explore what makes a city art centric and the specific ways to encourage art to flourish. Through our interviews with various experts and arts professionals, we’ve been collecting a list of the qualities. Communities need to be considered arts vibrant. While many of our guests are native to Asbury Park, our hometown, others have also offered ideas that create better opportunities for art to thrive.

Mike Sodano (01:04):
To review our findings so far, listen to the past interviews on our website. Of those we believe have a nuanced perspective. We’re gaining a consensus on what it takes to help a city become more receptive to art.

Nancy Sabino (01:19):
Today we are having a discussion with the artist Jim Wat. He talks to us about his new studio space, and through his many years working in the city, his views on the artscape in Asbury Park. Jim has a personal vantage point on what defines arts vibrancy. How would you describe yourself?

Jim Watt (01:43):
My name is Jim Watt. I am an artist. The other things that I do, I consider them under the umbrella of being a visual artist.

Nancy Sabino (01:50):
What are those other things?

Jim Watt (01:52):
I’m an architect. Recently I’ve become a filmmaker. I’ve produced plays, focusing right now mostly on painting, starting a new series of sculpture, have a solo show coming up at Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York. Also, getting this film that I made with Danny Clinch and Antoine Dry, um, into film festivals is a big project right now that I’m really excited about.

Mike Sodano (02:17):
Getting films into film festivals is almost a full-time job. Yeah.

Jim Watt (02:22):
Yeah. It’s very, very exciting. I mean, you guys, it’s the water that you swim in, so festivals. I, I didn’t realize how many there are. <laugh>. Oh, you know,

Mike Sodano (02:32):
It’s an entire infrastructure that most people don’t even understand or know about.

Jim Watt (02:37):

Nancy Sabino (02:38):
Sure. Every, every state has multiple and you have to find the right niche

Jim Watt (02:43):
For you. Exactly, yeah. And we have a, we have a niche film because it’s, it’s a short experimental film. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s only 15 minutes long, and it’s not a documentary. Uh, and it is, it is an art film we just submitted to Tribeca. Um, and I’m very excited about that, that possibility. And they have a short form experimental category. Yes. It’s a, it’s a great new world for me to swim around in. That’s great. Yeah.

Mike Sodano (03:08):
Out of all the places that you could possibly practice all this multi hyphenation, why Asbury Park?

Jim Watt (03:17):
I grew up in Oakhurst, so Asbury was, was always a part of my life growing up. When I got out of architecture school in 95 and got my license and decided that I wanted to have my own practice, Asbury was like a blank canvas for a young architect. And I started my practice here and it afforded me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in a bigger city. But those opportunities were really rich because it is a city, and the, the, the existing building stock here is so interesting. The underlying pl master plan of the city, I think is, is just about as good as it gets. I got to do so many wonderful projects and with so many interesting people, and, you know, got to really understand the inner workings of the municipality and, and how, how that worked and got to participate in some major zoning projects.

Jim Watt (04:17):
I got to jump right into the deep end of the pool here, and this was a wonderful laboratory. You know, me deciding to have my my art studio here is for a lot of the same reasons. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you have interesting people. You have fellow artists, which I think is probably the most important thing for me as an artist, is to, to feel like I, there is a community of artists. It doesn’t have to be a community of painters. <laugh> doesn’t have to be a community of, of architects, multi-discipline, but yeah. But, you know, you know, just, just people who are in the arts like you guys. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, to me that’s the most important thing. If that doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that I could be, you know, I’d have to be practicing my art somewhere else. Having New York City being so close that to me, it’s, it’s kind of the best of both worlds. You, you get to, you get to live in a real interesting urban environment on the beach that is really an hour drive from the most important cultural institutions in the world. It also affords me the ability to have, for example, a 2,500 square foot studio to work in. I wouldn’t have that ability in, in New York City just because of real estate prices. Right. Of price, you know, and, and available real estate. I mean, to have that kind of space, just, it, it wouldn’t, it would be prohibitive.

Nancy Sabino (05:54):
Explain to us a little bit about where you’re working out of now, your new studio space.

Jim Watt (05:59):
So, uh, as of August, I, my studio, uh, is in the Stda Baker building, which is right on the railroad tracks. Uh, it’s, it’s an, it’s an old art deco warehouse really for, for that, that housed the St. Baker cars. I’m on the second floor. I have 2,500 square feet on the second floor. My sister has a large studio next to me for her, uh, clothing company called Merle Works. It’s ideal. It’s fantastic. I have tremendous natural light. The building has just incredible architectural character in a or deco warehouse kind of way, um, which is perfect for the kind of work that I do. A lot of the work that I do is quite big. Um, and you know, for me it’s, it’s, it’s a wonderful art laboratory up there and, uh, I absolutely love it. And, um, I’m excited about it. That’s

Mike Sodano (06:55):
Good. From an artistic standpoint, I mean, uh, you know, to be able to work in a space that you feel productive in

Jim Watt (07:04):
Yes, absolutely. It has just a wonderful quality and energy to it.

Mike Sodano (07:09):
But you also live in Asbury as well?

Jim Watt (07:11):
I do, yeah, I do. Yeah. Which is great. I, I I love where I live and, uh, I live in a, I think an important piece of architecture in and of itself

Nancy Sabino (07:22):
As an artist. Um, you’ve, you’ve talked about what’s important to your surroundings and, and having that community of people. What do you think we’ll get right to it? What do you think it means for a city to be art centric?

Jim Watt (07:38):
Well, I think an art centric city has to have a few things. <laugh> from my point of view. I’ll just, just as an artist for, for example, avant garde music, you know, uh, you know, art film, really, really, really good food. I mean, those are, those are things that, you know, I, I don’t think I’m the only artist on the planet who, who really enjoys all of those things.

Mike Sodano (08:03):
Trust me,

Jim Watt (08:04):
You’re not <laugh>, you know, I mean, and you guys were, were hugely, uh, responsible for the, I think the cultural energy of the city in, in bringing the showroom to the city. And to me that having, having a, you know, an independent movie theater in town is crucial. It’s an interesting time to be asked that question in Asbury, cuz Asbury is changing quite a bit. And some of the, the changes that are happening are not necessarily conducive to an arts community. You know, I think that you, you have to have, uh, a balance of, of real estate that allows people like me to have 2,500 square feet to work out of all the new development is all residential. The financially motivated developers are gonna do what is the most valuable to them, which is not always what’s in the best interest of, um, well, it’s, it’s from, depends on your point of view, but if we’re talking about an arts community, a lot of the artists gets priced out of that kind of situation, you know? So I think what’s happening in in town now is a bit at odds with Asbury as an arts community.

Nancy Sabino (09:17):
Have you visited any place else that you think has a good model for what an arts centric city could look like? Or a piece of it that maybe is functioning in a way that ought to be replicated elsewhere?

Jim Watt (09:34):
I mean, cities are living dynamic things that are changing all the time. Places like Asheville and, you know, in some cases Jersey City and parts of Philadelphia, you know, there’s a lot of areas kind of on the fringe of, of major cities. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that, that operate very successfully in that way. I think for a long time, Brooklyn and Queens was that for New York. And that, that has become so, so pricey that it’s, you know, it’s not, but I, I, I think it’s the nature of the beast that the cities go through a transfer a life cycle.

Mike Sodano (10:14):
What does it take to be an arts vibrant city? Are we there? Are we growing into it? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, are we going away from it? As you say, the developers are, are coming in, but they’re concentrating on residential, um, and very high priced residential, which is kind of taking the artists out of the picture. So are we more perception than reality?

Nancy Sabino (10:38):
Or is there a way of keeping art in a city that’s growing and changing in ways, like we saw in Vancouver where they have a mural festival every year and they put up 99 murals in a year in a huge festival? Yeah.

Jim Watt (10:55):
I think the answer is certainly yes. I, I, I think mostly I believe that the sustainable moves that can be made have to be through a public-private partnership. It has to be through zoning, and there has to be a buy-in from, from the business community and or at least a p a p a portion of the business community and, and, and the, the municipality and the governing body. You know, if I, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d lobby the city to say, let’s identify some places that can’t be used for, uh, you know, vertical development, mixed use, residential dominant projects, like what they did with the Stone Pony, for example. The, the zoning around the stone pony identifies that as something that’s, that is not gonna become 10 story residential tower. Because

Nancy Sabino (11:56):
Is that historical preservation though?

Jim Watt (11:59):
No, I mean, it’s

Nancy Sabino (12:00):
Cultural preservation.

Jim Watt (12:02):
It’s cultural preservation, but zoning has the capability to do that. You know, zoning can, you know, you designate an area in new need of redevelopment, which is what happened with both the central business district and the waterfront. And you have latitude to basically do whatever you want.

Nancy Sabino (12:19):
Proactive zoning as opposed to

Jim Watt (12:22):
Reacting. Exactly. Proactive zoning. You know, I think it’s, it’s a really interesting set of problems, right? Cuz there’s rateables, there’s, you know, the, the, the city needs to generate a certain amount of tax revenue. I, I think that, that, that’s, to me, the most effective and sustainable way would be through zoning. I think that we’re very fortunate that, that the, the, the owner of the St. Baker building is intent on, you know, opening it up for things like artist studios. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I think master planning is really important. Where, where you are envisioning what’s gonna happen over the next 50 years mm-hmm. <affirmative> and making sure that there are protections in place. There’s a, there’s a good example. So, so there’s a little town called Burlington City, which is in Delaware River. Uh, it’s sort of in between Camden and Trenton. It’s an amazing little city. It was, uh, it, it was the capital of South Jersey for a while, and it was important because all of our founding fathers and their cohorts would, would basically travel to Burlington, stay overnight, and then take the ferry to Philly.

Jim Watt (13:32):
Yeah. It was kind of a, it was a, it was a ferry terminal to Philly. It was outside of the city, so a lot of, um, prominent people f from Philadelphia had homes there anyway, unbelievable colonial architecture, authentic colonial architecture, a little city, little dense little city, retail spine. Two, two neighborhoods that come off of that spine. Um, one is called Yorkshire. One is called, uh, new London. Fascinating place. They had a mayor, I think his name was Costello, it was like 20 or 30 years ago. He was mayor for a long time, and he loved, he, he, he really valued the architecture of the city. So he, I guess, and his fellow, uh, people on the council and his, his administer, his staff, they went out and they got grants that they gave to homeowners for, uh, beautification projects. Basically facade, facade renovation. So they procured money and they set up rules and they’re like, you can have this money, but here’s what you have to do with it.

Jim Watt (14:43):
And as a result, when you walk through town, there’s just, the street scapes are beautiful because it’s all been preserved and it changed the way people thought about their homes. They thought about them as culturally important and relevant and part of a bigger, uh, uh, you know, a bigger mission for this town, which was to preserve its, preserve its architecture. You know, I, I look at that example and I’m like, fantastic. I mean, that’s, that’s just incredible. Mayor Costello is just single handed. He just did this amazing thing for this city and, and it’s benefiting from it right now.

Mike Sodano (15:22):
Now see, once again, vision from the top. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I always say that if there’s no vision at the top, if there’s no progressive thinking, if there’s no thought to where are we going in three years? Yeah, yeah. Okay. What’s our two year plan? What’s our three year plan? What’s our five year plan? Where do we want to be? Then to me, you’re just, you’re just reacting. You’re always reacting. Mm-hmm.

Nancy Sabino (15:45):
<affirmative>, it’s the developer’s vision in effect. And that’s kind of what we’ve had here.

Jim Watt (15:49):
You know, I think is in a difficult position in that it’s not a little city and it’s not a big city. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it has, it has both little city and big, big city problems. Um, it also ha struck a deal, uh, originally with Asbury partner. I, I really feel for the mayor and council, what they have to do. And I happen to really, uh, believe that iStar has done some amazing things for this city. I really, uh, Brian Shepa is I think, a really good developer who holds the interest of the city in, in, in, in their mind when they’re making decisions. I’m not bad mouthing them. I think they’re great, but they have all, they hold all the cars. <laugh>, it’s very tough to be the mayor and council right now with somebody who really has more leverage than they have. Um, I, you know, that may be a controversial thing to say, but I think it’s true. And, you know, that’s why those decisions that were made back in 1987 when that waterfront redevelopment agreement was originally penned, I mean, look, we’re still feeling the effects of that today. We

Mike Sodano (16:55):
Are. So in 2023, we are still living under the guidance and, and dictum of a, of an agreement that was made over 20

Jim Watt (17:09):
Years. Yeah. And I would argue it is not that different than what Carbetta and Vaccaro signed in 1987.

Mike Sodano (17:15):

Jim Watt (17:15):
The blue, the blueprint of that agreement was back then, so those rights, right. Somebody is the master redeveloper that was established with Ocean Mile Redevelopment Corporation back in 1987, that those rights went into bankruptcy until 2002. Those rights have certain qualities about them that are not gonna change. There. There is a, there is a contractual kind of architecture to those rights that can be modified a bit, but it’s basically the deal, the deal that Karaba struck is the deal that Asbury partners struck and is basically the deal that now iStar has.

Nancy Sabino (17:53):
And unless the city can come up with money, somebody’s always gonna own those rights other than the city.

Jim Watt (17:59):
Nobody’s gonna give them away <laugh>. They’re too, they’re too valuable. Especially, especially when you have developer, a developer like iStar that’s in, into the city now for probably half a billion dollars. They’re not going anywhere. Not, they’re not going anywhere. And they’re also, you know, they’re gonna, they’re gonna fight for every inch of leverage they have. I happen to think that they’re a really good organization that’s done amazing things. So we, we got really lucky. Yeah. Because with the kind of leverage that they have in the wrong hands could have been just an absolute and utter disaster. Right. I mean, it ha you know, billions and billions of dollars are gonna be spent over the next 20 years Absolutely. On the waterfront. There’s a level of sophistication required to maneuver that as a municipality. And I’m not saying that they don’t have that, but I’m saying it’s, it’s difficult. It’s given the resources that a little city like Asbury has, it’s very difficult. Right.

Nancy Sabino (18:51):
You’re pitted against David and Goliath

Jim Watt (18:54):
Scenario. Yes, yes. And even

Nancy Sabino (18:56):
fortunately, Goliath is a benign <laugh>.

Jim Watt (18:58):
Yeah. No, we have a good, we have a good Goliath, but in fundamentally, there is a, there is a, a misalignment of agenda. Yeah. That’s just fundamental. There’s going to be times where there’s an irreconcilable difference of what is best for the city versus what’s best for the

Nancy Sabino (19:17):
Developer. I was gonna say, anywhere the art community can talk as one, or have, uh, a vantage point that benefits the entire city, I think would help in giving the municipality some leverage. So it’s not just the town council who’s asking for something, but it’s the art community that says, this is a win-win situation. Let us explain it in dollars and cents. Cuz we’ve always thought it’s a dollar and cents issue. If you could show how much money you are bringing in as the arts shows, then you, you get more notice because obviously now you’re not just a bunch of artists who need a place to live and work. The economic engine of art becomes very important to keeping not only the image, because Asbury has a very big image, bigger than the size of the town. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that image is partly because of the art and the music and the people who live here. So you have to kind of, I think if the art community could speak as one, but that’s, you know, that’s the drawback of artists are not into necessarily voicing their opinions. Yeah. As, as

Jim Watt (20:41):
A group. I think that Asbury suffers from, from, you know, a a massive case of nostalgia too. Even, even today when, when they think of, when they think of the, the, the music of Asbury Park, they’re really talking about something that happened 50 years ago. Right. Th this is not the place where the avant garde of today’s music, whether it be classical music, jazz, rock, whatev. Well, that image, to me, at least when I hear people talk about Asbury from outside of Asbury Park, they’re really talking about something that doesn’t really exist here anymore. They’re talking about something that happened a long, long

Mike Sodano (21:17):
Time ago, long time ago. You’re absolutely right. Where are the new players coming and exhibiting their, their wares. Yes.

Nancy Sabino (21:31):
So what is the new Asbury Park wanting to be?

Mike Sodano (21:35):
We’re in an identity crisis.

Jim Watt (21:37):
We are, we are. You know, the reason that I think that really important musical explosion happened here around 1970, was there was just a group of people who were doing it. Yeah. You know what I mean? And Asbury was just a cool, gritty place to be. A lot of it is just the stars aligned mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and that scene gets hot and catches on, and then the world starts to pay attention. And I think that that’s an opportunity that could happen every day. I mean, it could potentially happen tomorrow. We don’t know. So I, I just wanna clarify that, that people are coming to as aspirated by art and those galleries do a great job. It’s about momentum and, and kind of a critical mass. But I think that that’s what’s fun about it. And I think that to me, Asbury is an arts community because that’s a potential here. Is that a potential in Marlboro? No. Is that a potential in Howell? There is an arts community here. Now we can debate its level of vibrancy, but it is possible here that amazing things in the world of the arts could happen every day. That’s not true of most places. I would argue that that’s not true of, of, of Long Branch. Right. I think that, for example, pure Village has killed that opportunity for Long Branch Asbury is still a much more, there’s

Nancy Sabino (22:58):

Jim Watt (22:59):
There. There’s great much more potential here in the world of creativity in the arts than a place like Long Branch.

Mike Sodano (23:06):
Exactly. Yeah. And I think the potential has to do with be still being able to attract and keep people of like minds who want to talk, network, communicate, share, engage vibrant enough to, to want to say, yeah, I want to live here. Yeah.

Jim Watt (23:28):

Mike Sodano (23:30):
I wanna work here.

Jim Watt (23:34):
For example, before we started recording, I was telling you about a little gathering that I was at last night, which is a listening, a jazz listening party where we talked about everything. We talked about literature, we talked about jazz, we talked about art, we talked about, you know, you name it, we talked about it last night and we were kicking around ideas and arguing about certain artists. And you know, it was, it was a, that to me, that’s boom, check the box. Right. That’s an arts community. I mean, that to me was, it was so much fun. It was so engaging. It was at a very, very high level, uh, of, you know, the dialogue was really interesting and challenging. And, uh, we listened to some amazing music with a group of people that didn’t agree on everything, but they agreed that that was a, that was a conversation worth having.

Jim Watt (24:20):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, there’s not a lot of places where your neighbor, those are your neighbors. Right. You know, this is one of those places. Right, right. You know, outside the major cities that, that, you know, certainly that happens in New York City, in, you know, in spades. Right. Certainly that happens in Philadelphia. Certainly that happens in Chicago and New York. Uh, la you know, the, the, the, the places that we know it happens, I’ll, I’ll put that experience up against any oth any arts, conversation, experience, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I think that Asbury has that. And I think that there, there, there are many areas where Asbury hits a home run. They may not make a huge splash, but, um, I mean, during the pandemic, you guys were there. I did this thing called Jazz at the shop where I host or I hosted these, you know, uh, jazz events with some of the greatest living jazz musicians came down from New York to Seventh Avenue in Kingsley <laugh> in a, in a, in an asphalt, you know, side yard. Side yard, yeah. <laugh>. And to me, that was one of the most culturally significant things I’ve ever seen happen anywhere. Well, I would argue it is happening. I it is happening. And it’s happening in a sort of organic way that ebbs and flows because there’s a potential of it happening here.

Nancy Sabino (25:43):
There’s a receptivity here for that kind of Yeah. All of a sudden new idea.

Mike Sodano (25:49):
That’s how the showroom happened. Yeah. When people looked at us and said, you wanna start a movie theater in a retail space? I said, well, why not?

Nancy Sabino (25:58):
The people came to us and said, would you consider doing a one-man show? Sure, sure. Would you consider doing music? Okay.

Mike Sodano (26:05):
Would you consider a poetry slam? How about, uh, a four piece band comedy? How about that? Sure. Come on in.

Jim Watt (26:11):
What about panel discussions after the

Mike Sodano (26:13):
Film? After the film? Yeah.

Jim Watt (26:14):
There’s no better example than the showroom. What you guys did of, of that poten, you created an environment or context where anything could happen and it did.

Nancy Sabino (26:23):
Right. That was our feeling, was that you didn’t know what was gonna happen until you tried it and

Mike Sodano (26:28):
You didn’t know what you didn’t

Nancy Sabino (26:30):
Know. There’s something here, Chico Rouse called it the vibe, and he said there’s a vibe. Something you can’t quite put your finger on. Yeah. But you know it when you feel it. Yeah. And it’s here. Totally.

Jim Watt (26:41):
Yeah. And I think that, you know, we could shameless plug in my restaurants, but you could, you could walk into Port or Pascal and Sabine or, or you know, homesick or Lovesick and cozy up to the corner of the bar tonight and really end up having an amazing conversation with somebody that you’ve met for the first time. Asbury’s a place where that, that happens.

Nancy Sabino (27:01):
And there are people who are thought leaders in their own, in their own niches. Sure. And we have a chance to know those people firsthand because it’s a little city. You know, it’s a little city with lots of big people who are here. Yep.

Mike Sodano (27:18):
Jim Wat, thank you so much. Thank

Jim Watt (27:20):
You. This is fun, <laugh>.

Jim Watt (27:22):
I wanna keep going.

Nancy Sabino (27:24):
<laugh>. And that’s how Arts ruled for this time. The Arts Rule Podcast is produced, directed, and edited by Mike Seden and Nancy Sabino for arts rule.com. If you believe Arts Rule in your city or town nominated on our website, and we’ll consider taking a look. If you like our podcast, please follow us on Instagram and sign up for our newsletter@artsrule.com. Until next time, remember when all else fails, arts Rule. Thanks for listening.