In the late 1960s, the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) sought to restore the declining commercial corridor along Jamaica Avenue. One of its first actions was to appropriate the abandoned Queens Register of Titles and Deeds building, an imposing neo-Renaissance structure built in 1898. Plans were made to restore the building—to be called the Jamaica Arts Center—as a symbol of Jamaica's reawakening and as a magnet for thousands of office workers, shoppers and residents.
Starting in 1972, GJDC hired the staff for Jamaica Arts Center through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act; in 1974, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the building had “special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City” and was landmarked. In 1978, the Jamaica Center for the Performing and Visual Arts was incorporated. Also in 1978, the Center became a member of New York City's historic public-private partnership, the Cultural Institutions Group.
Three program tentpoles always grounded the Center: visual arts, performing arts, and arts education. Such leading visual artists as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Isamu Noguchi, Adolph Gottlieb and David Chung were exhibited early on; major performing artists, such as Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Big Nick Nicholas and The Boys Choir of Harlem were also welcomed. The Center pioneered one of the first arts-in-education partnerships between public schools and community-based grousp in America; at the same time, the Center’s groundbreaking work with groups like Family Matters, Teen Reach and Stop the Violence established industry-wide precedents for the use of arts to reach at-risk youth. At the Center, dozens of classes for both children and adults were offered weekly and every semester.
In 1992, a defalcation left the Center with tax liability and debt. In 1993, the Center became one of 15 New York City cultural organizations to participate in the National Arts Stabilization (NAS) program. NAS provided a funding reserve based on meeting critical goals, from implementing strict fiscal management systems to running five fiscal years deficit-free. In 1997, the Jamaica Center for the Performing and Visual Arts celebrated its 25th anniversary by becoming the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning.
In 1998, JCAL’s landmark building received a $3.6M renovation/restoration. Arts galleries, painting and dance studios, music rooms and a ceramics studio were enhanced while a 99-seat proscenium theatre, computer lab and video production facility were added. JCAL’s ambitions expanded accordingly—with a recommitment to programs focused on early-career New York City visual and performing artists of color.
Two blocks from JCAL, a landmarked 1858 First Reformed Dutch Church was slated for demolition in 1975. Once again, the community rallied to save it. For years, GJDC maintained the structure as a plan emerged to refurbish it as a performing arts center. Through public funding, the $22M project created a multiuse theatre with flexible seating for 400 and meeting rooms for the “JCAL campus.” In 2009, JPAC received the Lucy G. Moses Award, the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s highest award for preservation.
Since 2010, JCAL has refined its focus further, from creating a yearly dance festival funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to designing residencies to visual and performing artists. JCAL’s educational wing, the Arts Center Workshops, were rebranded as an innovative School of the Arts in the late 2010s. In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, JCAL invested in technology to preserve and lay the foundation for new programs through live-streaming and social media.