Regarding the Montclair Art Museum’s landscape redevelopment proposal scheduled to be discussed at the Montclair Planning Board meeting, Monday, August 26 at 7:30 p.m.
The Montclair Art Museum is a cultural landscape masterpiece conceived by the visionary founding planners of our community.
Today, it is an important cultural focal point and should continue to thrive and develop. It would be “bad grammar” however, within its dialogue with the community, for the Museum to erase its cultural/artistic legacy and symbols from our collective memory’s landscape.
The Museum’s redevelopment proposal calls for the removal of the “Sun Vow” statue which is one of the earliest art pieces collected by William T. Evans, the museum’s founder. The statue, placed on its erratic naturalistic rock, occupies a prominent location in the historic landscape as does the Lebanese Cedar tree that was cultivated and planted by the local landscape design visionary Howard Van Vleck. The plan proposes to remove the existing tree and historic sculpture to create a reflecting pond and a new commissioned sculpture.
The founders of the museum intended to preserve our natural beauty and our cultural heritage. The Sun Vow statue is a symbol from our cultural past. Montclair, once the home of the Lenni Lenape has lost most of its Native American symbols, except perhaps for names like Watchung and Yantacaw. Dianne Lewis, a New York-based architect, stated at her Montclair Art Museum presentation “Why Montclair is Montclair” that “Montclair is a mystical visionary landscape that preserves the ghosts of the Native Americans. It has a tragic dimension. Montclair is not an ordinary suburban condition, it is like Fiesole in Tuscany and a beacon of light seen from the distance.”
The intention of Mr. Evans was to place The Sun Vow in front of the building so that it could be enjoyed by passersby from the street as well as the grounds. Why change that?
The Museum’s founders were members of the Municipal Arts Commission who intended to preserve the natural beauty of Montclair with the creation of the first 1906 Master Plan.
A 1902 Montclair Times Article about the Sun Vow statue states:
“Object of the municipal art commission. The objective of this commission shall be to promote in all practical ways the beautifying of Montclair, to preserve the distinctive charm of the country town, and to exert influence to the end that the principle of local fitness shall be served in public and private improvements, to consider the probable future development of Montclair, and to plan for meeting its needs. To influence a just appreciation of the value of art in daily life and to encourage and promote the public and private use and patronage of good art in Montclair.”
The removal of “The Sun Vow” statue, a gift to the community from the museum’s founder as well as the proposed changes to the front yard of the museum subtract from our cultural patrimony. With the current local trends of redevelopment, our collective memory of the township and its original beauty is disappearing. All you have to do is look down Bloomfield Avenue to see these aesthetic changes.
The front yard of the Museum is a very important part of our cultural legacy. It is an icon ingrained in our community’s collective memory. Each element in front of the façade has a significance. The museum founders’ intentions and the valuable historic landscape should be respected and remain as a learning tool of our original cultural legacy to teach to the new generations to come.
Frank Gerard Godlewski is a local historian & NY Armory Arts Week Curator.