103 Montclair, NJ: Coast Guard Station

Montclair, New Jersey: Coast Guard Station

[Montclair Art Museum]

Montclair seems an unlikely place for an art museum. It is mostly a bedroom community. It houses some prominent corporations and some prominent homes for their executives, one of whom founded the museum, which lies just south of the downtown, atop the crest of a hill in a grove of trees. In 1909, William T. Evans offered 30 paintings if a suitable fireproof building were provided. The next year, a group incorporated "to establish and maintain in the Town of Montclair, a museum."

The museum looked like one of the well-sized homes that surrounded it, except the parking lot was slightly larger than the nearby homes' driveways--but only slightly. The main building looked like a converted dentist's office. Greek-revival Ionic columns created a porch on the blond brick front. The campus is also home to an art school, administrative offices, library, and an arboretum. All those institutions under one roof made it too crowded, and, when I visited, the museum was under construction for expansion and the Hopper had been put away.

Though Hopper is often associated with his urban subjects, the Cape Cod landscape here, Coast Guard Station, is a favorite of the staff and visitors. A museum employee e-mailed me that she was sad I wouldn't get to see what she considered an excellent example of Hopper and one of her favorite works in the collection. The day I visited the museum, their store was sold out of the post card version of it. There are no figures in the painting. Instead, the title structure is set on a barren shore, and we see it's dark backside.

The museum focuses on American and Native American art, and one of its biggest donations was from Morgan Russell, an originator of the American movement Synchromism. Being near the mouth of the Hudson, the Museum also has a large collection of works by the Hudson River School and by Montclair's best-known artist, George Inness. A new specialty is 20th-century works by African-American artists. Part of the museum's mission statement is "evolving with our audience's needs." It even added a separate "Diversity Credo."

Montclair is known for its multiracial make-up, and one of its 38,0000 residents was one of the first African Americans to graduate from my prep school back in the 1970s. He was continuing the tradition by working in development for a private school near Montclair. I had met him once at a reunion, so I called him to get some background on Montclair. He answered in a baritone, his words measured but flowing swiftly.

"I don't think it's isolated," he opined. "It's a suburb, but it's only about 19 miles to Times Square. And it's a very participatory suburb. It's more like the Upper West Side than the Upper West Side is any more. The New York Times did an article about race in Montclair; out of a whole series on race, the culminating article was a story on Montclair. It called us an 'urban suburb.' There are a lot of ethnic restaurants; a lot of artists and writers choose to live here."

"I've lived here since 1987. We moved from Park Slope--which is a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn--to raise our kids here. It's one of the best places to raise kids and the best town for an interracial marriage like ours. It's about 33% African American. It's one of the most diverse, warm…. Well maybe not warm. We argue a lot over school board issues and such, but argument is OK here. At least it's out in the open. Other towns," he chuckled, "consider a class on World Literature a high achievement."

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