Sendak Foundation working with town on museum concept

The Maurice Sendak Foundation and town officials are in discussions aimed at creating a museum to show the work and art collection of the late children’s author in the Philip Johnson building at the town-owned former Schlumberger property.

“We love it. We’re very interested in it,” said John Vitale of the Maurice Sendak Foundation.

A Sendak Foundation board member and one of three executors of the author’s will, Mr. Vitale met with First Selectman Rudy Marconi on Monday to discuss the museum concept.

“We certainly hope that we can pursue it and that it works out for the town and for us,” Mr. Vitale said. “We think the Johnson site could be a great exhibition space. We had an architect look at it. …

“I think it’s a terrific place, you know, from an architectural point of view. And of course Maurice’s collection and the fact that he lived in Ridgefield since 1970 — we’ve never really tied it to the community. It’s a nice place to start. …

“Maurice did a lot of operas and designs, and there’s a theater at the Johnson site. Theoretically they could have theater groups, or student groups from local schools, perform there.”

Mr. Marconi sees a lot of potential benefit for the town.

“I think the combination of Philip Johnson, renowned architect, and Maurice Sendak, well-known author, to collaborate posthumously, will result in a tremendous asset for the town of Ridgefield, that will be enjoyed by many, for years to come,” he said.

“Now comes the hard work: making it happen.”

He spoke after Monday’s meeting with Maurice Sendak Foundation board members.

The Board of Selectmen had agreed last Wednesday night, Dec. 10, that Mr. Marconi should pursue discussions with the Sendak Foundation. The selectmen also approved putting a limited amount of town money into roof patches and other repairs that will halt the building’s deterioration and help preserve it.

“The board said we want to work with the Maurice Sendak Foundation to create the Maurice Sendak Museum in the Philip Johnson building,” Mr. Marconi said.

However, the town will continue talking to other parties interested in the building.

“We’re going to work with everyone,” Mr. Marconi said.

“You still have to have a ‘Plan B’ if it doesn’t work out with the museum,” Selectman Andy Bodner said at last Wednesday’s meeting.

Ridgebury plans

The Maurice Sendak Foundation is also pursuing plans that would make Mr. Sendak’s house in Ridgebury a permanent repository for much of his own work, and his collection of work by other artists.

“Maurice’s house is going to be visited by artists and scholars who want to see where he lived and worked,” Mr. Vitale said. “It’ll be by appointment only — several times during the year, or as much interest as there is. That’s our intention.”

But public display of art isn’t contemplated at the Ridgebury site.

“The main house was built in 1790, and there were additions,” Mr. Vitale said.

“It was never intended for this to be an exhibition space.

“A large part of his art collection is still here, a lot of his opera sets and designs, his original art,” he said. “And of course the works that he collected are still here.”

The thought is that art and books and stage sets kept at Mr. Sendak’s former home in Ridgebury could be shown in a museum with public exhibition space at the Philip Johnson building.

“There’s plenty of work to rotate out several times a year. You really don’t want artwork hanging more than three months a year — because it’s paper, light would affect it,” Mr. Vitale said.

“You’d rotate it out to keep it interesting and fresh. People aren’t going to come back if you have the same pieces exhibited over and over again.”

Mr. Vitale said the Philip Johnson building and Schlumberger theater have a lot potential as a museum complex.

“We think it’ll be a great venue. It’s in a terrific location. Even though some people think it’s in the woods, the Johnson site would be terrific for people to visit, from New York, or wherever.

Museum’s cost

A ballpark estimate of $5 million for creating a museum space in the Philip Johnson building was mentioned at the Dec. 10 selectmen’s meeting, but the board appears to envision this as something to be accomplished with grants and private donations — not financed by town taxpayers.

Fund raising could presumably be led by a nonprofit museum.

“What we’re looking to do is form a new entity —  not ‘we’ but we’re hoping someone will form a new entity — to begin raising money,” Mr. Marconi said Dec. 11. “Not only private money, but state funding and corporate funding — possible sponsors who are willing to create this idea.”

As envisioned, the museum would be created in collaboration with the Maurice Sendak Foundation but wouldn’t be owned or operated by the foundation itself.

“The foundation does not want to be part of a museum,” Mr. Marconi told the board Wednesday night.

Other buildings

Since the former Schlumberger auditorium, beside the Philip Johnson building, has potential as part of a museum, the town will hold it aside from the demolition planned for most other buildings on the 40-acre site. A citizens committee to be appointed in January will study future uses for most of the site.

There was some debate among the selectmen last Wednesday over whether to pass a motion asserting the board’s desire to preserve the Philip Johnson building, a goal four of the five selectmen — Barbara Manners, Di Masters, Maureen Kozlark, and Mr. Marconi — support.

“I want to get the ball rolling,” said Ms. Masters. “The citizens committee needs to know: We will definitely save the building with outside funding.”

The selectmen eventually passed a motion stating their commitment to preserve the building, but making it clear that they were authorizing expenditure of town funds only for “minimal repairs and patches to preserve the status quo” in the building.

Any major expenditures would require separate action by the board.

Mr. Marconi said Thursday that he regards a Maurice Sendak museum as more than a potential use for an empty building.

“For the town of Ridgefield, from a cultural perspective, from an economic development perspective, from a town asset perspective, a facility that recognizes the lifetime achievements of a man like Maurice Sendak — a resident of our community — this facility has all the possibilities, plus more,” he said. “And, hopefully, some day it will be a cultural centerpiece for people throughout the New York metropolitan area.”

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