I was sitting with Annie Poor, daughter of Henry Varnum Poor, in the living room of her father’s home, Crow House, sipping tea from one of his mugs when at the top of the stone fireplace a large black snake emerged from a crack in the masonry and writhed in the air above us. Annie stopped speaking, stood up, grabbed the fire tongs, plucked the snake from the ceiling, and threw it outside. Then, without any comment about what had just transpired she continued with what she had being saying.
Above image: Henry Varnum Poor’s home. Photograph by Benjamin Norman for the New York Times.
I visited often as we represented the Poor Estate in our New York Gallery from the 1980’s, having first encountered Henry’s work and home in 1978 when I was curating the exhibition, A Century of Ceramics in the United States, with Margie Hughto.
Poor was a skilled painter who fell in love with design and ceramics and became an important maker of applied art between the two World Wars as his painting career slowed down. He wrote a fine book, From Mud to Immortality, which even Bernard Leach approved of. After 1947 his ceramics, charming but never groundbreaking, were eclipsed by other more contemporary developments but he continued working.
A recent article in the New York Times, “Efforts to Preserve Henry Varnum Poor’s House and Its History Have Stalled” prompted me to reconsider whether the long effort to save Crow House was still valid:
“The rambling stone cottage where the artist Henry Varnum Poor created his ceramics and his paintings and other artworks now held at major museums around the country is called Crow House, perhaps because of the birds that circled overhead when Poor designed and built it, by hand, nearly 100 years ago.
“Seven years ago, town leaders in nearby Ramapo decided to pay $1.3 million for the property, with plans to create a cultural center to honor Poor and maintain the two-story house as it was when the artist lived and worked there. That plan has stalled, however, and the physical condition of the house has deteriorated, along with the relationship between Ramapo town officials and preservationists, who fear that a significant structure may be compromised beyond repair. Some of the house’s admirers say the lack of upkeep violates an agreement the town signed with the state, which put up some of the purchase price.
“The project’s future darkened further last month, when Mr. Poor’s son, Peter Poor, told the town he was no longer planning to donate some of the artworks and possessions that filled the house because of its “virtual abandonment.” He had removed ceramics, paintings and furniture last year at the town’s request to facilitate repairs.”
Now town officials say they do not have enough money to fix the building’s myriad problems, at least not yet and not for the past seven years. They are trying to place the blame on Peter Poor to distract from their own inaction and their other historic home projects are also in trouble.
The city has proven to be a poor steward of this project and the buildings have continued to rot. For nearly four decades I have witnessed Poor have to deal with wave after wave of H.V. evangelists, intent on saving the house, high on idealism and low on funding. Peter has never felt that keeping the house as a shrine was a good idea but he went along with the last proposal. Now he has run out of patience as the Times reports:
“’They have delayed and delayed,’ he said. ‘I think they have bitten off more than they can chew.’ Mr. Poor said he had been prepared to donate 30 to 40 artworks and all of the furniture that had been in the house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That furniture collection, appraised at roughly $100,000, includes tables and chairs that his father built. He said it was difficult to estimate the value of the artworks because they are of varying quality. But he said that he now planned on disposing of the items within the near future.”
This fracas raises important issues about the future of historic house museums. There are already more than 15,000 in the United States and most are struggling financially. Boston Globe correspondent Ruth Graham dealt with this issue recently in an article, “The great historic house museum debate”:
“House museums can seem like the sleepiest corner of the museum world: They tend to be small spaces with small budgets, elderly volunteers, and even older furnishings. But recently they have become the center of a live, even contentious debate. Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.”
Graham argues that they can be rescued but I disagree. It’s time for attrition. However, this is never easy, closing a museum raises overly emotional responses akin to book burning. It seems obscene to let culture and history die. Yet we have too many underfunded, under-performing institutions and some culling of this herd would benefit those museums who do excellent work but also struggle to survive. Ultimately they all drink from the same shrinking pool of philanthropic largesse.
Historic house museums are a special case. They are often opened in a wave of sentimental fervor to preserve the legacy of a writer, artist, actor, or politician often at a time when their star is beginning to dim in order to keep their legacy alive. They often are founded with limited private money at first but most end up as wards of the state.
At a time when reports show that the role of the museum is beginning to peak (the National Endowment for Arts released figures showing that American visits to museums and historic sites has dropped 21% since its last peak) there is still a frenzy to build new ones or extend existing institutions. This museum bubble has been going on for two decades and is probably close to bursting.
ARTnews, in their recent annual listing of the top 50 art collectors, noted that twenty of them (40%) have either opened their own museums or are about to. This competition from vanity kunsthalle weakens the traffic and role of the public museums, which are generally far superior.
A few house and studio museums for potters have done well enough; Bernard Leach in St Ives and Kanjiro Kawai in Japan are examples. But let’s place this in context. Leach is the most famous potter of the 20th century and his studio is now a museum as well as an apprentice center. On top of that St. Ives is a popular tourist destination and a storied town in the history of British modern art.
Kawai is a national treasure in Japan, an internationally revered figure in ceramic art and his house is in historic Kyoto, not Clarkstown, N.Y. I must confess that spending an afternoon in the Kawai’s home and studio was one of the most remarkable experiences I have had.
Henry Varnum Poor does deserve better but his place in the art canon is not likely to improve. And the city has already proved that funding is going to be problematic. He will remain a fascinating B figure but never an A. I cannot imagine that the annual traffic to visit his home will be large. Furthermore single artist museums have the built-in problem that they get mainly one-visit traffic.
Arman told me shortly before he died that he had turned down three fully funded offers to build a museum dedicated to his career. “That will not be a living art space”, he said, “but a mausoleum in which to bury my art. Over time visitors will reduce to a trickle. I suggested the Arman Museum for Emerging Artists but no one wanted to support that.”
Should Crow House then submit to the wrecker’s ball? Better that than investing $3-4 million in fixing an interesting but ultimately unimportant building. If it is razed in a couple of years few will remember that it ever existed. The Friends of Crow House will no doubt disagree but I have an alternative plan to suggest.
The best way to save a historical house is to invest it with actual vigor, not as a dust gathering shine, but as home to a research library, a think tank, an arts foundation, a craft school with an existing parent that has the funds to keep up the maintenance costs. That way the house serves a contemporary purpose. There can be mini-shrines within the house, glassed in niches for his pots, so the artist is not forgotten. Short of that, the Crow House campaign is a fool’s errand.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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