A Suburban Gem Keeps Shining

The Montclair Art Museum establishes itself as an outstanding regional museum with an extensive collection of American art.

How does a suburban art museum compete when it’s located just miles from some of the greatest art institutions in the world?

The answer is, it doesn’t.

For nearly a century, the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) has established itself as an outstanding regional museum with an extensive collection of American art, including work by the master landscape artist (and former Montclair resident) George Inness, and a Native American collection that is renowned around the country.

“We never compete with the Met and MOMA in New York,” says Lora Urbanelli, who has been director of the Montclair Art Museum for the past two years. “To have an art museum like ours in the suburbs is pretty extraordinary. People don’t have to go into the city to see this kind of work. We have a really strong collection right here in your backyard.”

The museum may not set out to compete with art collections in New York City, but it has been showing world-class art.

In 2009, the museum held its most ambitious exhibition to date: “Cezanne and American Modernism” featured works by the French painter as well as pieces that showcased Cezanne’s influence on modern American artists. The show, which was 10 years in the making, had record attendance for the museum and garnered terrific reviews.

In March, the museum will mount an exhibit of Andy Warhol’s depictions of automobiles in popular culture. The show will include Warhol’s painting Twelve Cadillacs, which is owned by the museum and inspired the exhibit. It is one of Warhol’s early silkscreens and was part of a little-known group of car paintings the artist did for Harper’s Bazaar in 1962.

Urbanelli says the exhibit will be enhanced by art activities for families and perhaps even a classic car show in the museum’s parking lot to tie into the automobile theme.

“Warhol is very popular; he’s a household name, and now he’s an American icon,” says Urbanelli. “This show will be exciting and challenging for us, and it speaks to our desire to make art and museums more accessible to people.”

And that’s the direction the museum is going, says Urbanelli, adding that a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is also being planned for sometime in the next few years. As MAM nears its 100th birthday in 2014, museum officials are reevaluating its role in the community while they look toward the future.

“We know who we are, but how do we want to see ourselves at 100 years old?” she says. “The museum’s mission has changed over the years. In 1911, museums thought of themselves as more elitist, with a pretty exclusive group of people that used them. No museum thinks of itself that way today. We have a very different view of what and who art is for. Now the purpose of a museum is for everyone to enjoy it.”

That also means striking a balance between contributing to the field of knowledge in art through exhibits, and appealing to those who may not have a background in art, but who just enjoy going to museums.
“We try not to think just about scholarship, but also about popular culture and contemporary art,” says Urbanelli. “How does art fit into the average person’s everyday life?”

Like many other institutions these days, the museum is struggling with budget pressures. In 2009, it took a major hit in funding and cut nearly a quarter of its staff. But Urbanelli says MAM still is able to keep intact most of the museum’s programming—including its art classes.

That’s important, she says, because reduced programs usually mean reduced community interest and donations.

“We’re not completely out of the woods yet. We’re working on keeping our donations up, and we’re hoping people will continue to support us,” she says. “Having a great suburban regional art museum here is very special, and we should celebrate that.”

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