Helping an ever-changing community see themselves reflected in a century-old museum is not an easy task.
Laura Vookles, curatorial department chair at the Hudson River Museum, wasn’t focused on the ease of that task. She was more concerned about action.
“I’m interested in representing new artists, contemporary artists, artists of color and women artists,” Vookles said. “What’s been kind of hard is curating exhibits from archives — we don’t really have much that can fill what’s needed.”
Founded in 1919 as the Yonkers Museum, what would become the Hudson River Museum relocated to the Victorian Glenview House at 511 Warburton Ave., overlooking the Yonkers stretch of the Hudson waterfront. In the ‘60s, a blunt, brutalist building was attached as an entryway to the Glenview house. This new building provided the museum with two extra floors, a re-vamped planetarium, workshop spaces, and a bookstore.
Putting together a show that helps a visitor interact with more contemporary pieces before observing historical art, such as the current exhibit featuring artist Thomas Cole, is something Vookles strives for. On the lower floor, two exhibits by watercolor painter James McElhinney and photographer Janelle Lynch are shown in a large, expansive space.
“Together, the two are a sort of introduction to Cole’s show,” Vookles said. “McElhinney’s paintings of the Hudson are stunning, and Lynch’s photos are so detailed. Especially with Lynch, there is a sort of spiritual or symbolic connection between her and the flora she photographs, very similar to Cole in that sense.”
In the corner of the expansive room is the door to the Cole exhibit, a relatively small space with 12 of the artist’s famous Catskill Creek oil paintings. A member of the Hudson River School — a 19th century collection of artists intent upon capturing the vibrant beauty of the Hudson — Cole has remained one of the museum’s most revered and famous members.
Yet, Vookles added, fame like that can overshadow other artists.
A painting by Ida Stebbins hangs on the second floor. Although she was a fellow member of the Hudson River School with Cole, she’s what Vookles describes as a lesser-known painter. The work, at least according to Vookles, is stunning, yet Stebbins is virtually forgotten.
To fill that space — both with historical art and contemporary exhibits — Vookles has partnered with several different museums to create shows and exhibits that include female artists as well as artists of color, no matter the time period.
“There are questions we ask ourselves here that involves anyone who visits,” Vookles said. “Historical or otherwise, are there women on display? Are there Hispanic artists on display? These are important questions.”
Answering those questions goes beyond curating. Vookles and museum education department head Saralinda Lichtblau have focused on the museum’s history of creative teaching to any and all in the community.
“The demographics of Yonkers have changed over the years,” Lichtblau said. “Back in 1986, it was revealed that the city had de facto segregation due to housing — families had to remain where they were born, and therefore had to go to the same schools, and so had fewer opportunities of relocation or a better education. It’s changed a lot since then, and the museum did what they could to help with that.”
The two say the museum is as much an active community center as it is a curatorial institution. After all, the museum hosts teaching artists-in-residence three times a year — artists who design a college readiness weekend program to teach 80 high school students.
Jia Sung — whose work has been shown at the Lincoln Center, Yale University and at Wave Hill — is the current artist-in-residence.
“Students are lead through the museum, then brought back into the workshop space with the artist,” Lichtblau said. “Then they’re advised to express what they understood, or at least felt, from the work shown.”
Yet the museum’s striving for greater representation and exposure to other kinds of art and artists is indeed a tall order, something Vookles hopes to accommodate.
“We do our best to remain accessible and interactive to those who aren’t particularly interested in ‘art,’” Vookles said. “There are so many different ways, and we hope that by hosting all kinds of teaching artists with all kinds of backgrounds — and by hosting a variety of art types to really show different kinds of art — people can learn from the museum, and enjoy it.”