The Sun Vow
“The Sun Vow,” by Hermon Atkins MacNeil. COURTESY LISANNE RENNER

By Lisanne Renner

Before the now-landmarked Montclair Art Museum was built, the museum was already the proud owner of a sculpture that had won a silver medal at the famed Paris Exposition of 1900:  “The Sun Vow,” by Hermon Atkins MacNeil. In fact, the Sun Vow was the second work of art to enter the museum’s collection, having been donated by one of the museum’s founders, William T. Evans.  

Not surprisingly, the sculpture was given pride of place when the museum’s building and grounds were completed.  It was installed on the front lawn, perched atop a boulder at the museum’s entrance, where it has greeted visitors every day since the museum opened in 1914 (five years before the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its own casting of “The Sun Vow,” which remains on display in its American Wing).  But that will change, if the current museum leadership has its way.

As part of a larger plan that will be presented to the town’s Planning Board on Aug. 26, the museum has decided to remove “The Sun Vow” from the front lawn.  They say that the sculpture will be placed elsewhere, although they cannot say exactly where – possibly in a sculpture garden yet to be created. But why move it at all?  Why move the one exterior work of art that has graced the museum’s entrance for over 100 years? Why move this signature sculpture from the highly visible place of honor selected by the museum’s founders and architect?  

The museum’s director has argued that if the museum doesn’t have the freedom to change it will wither.  But keeping “The Sun Vow” in its prominent spot has never prevented the museum from displaying cutting-edge art, indoors or out. The façade, for instance, features Spencer Finch’s “Yellow” light installations. And “The Sun Vow” has shared its hillock with video monitors and, back in 1998, the “Strokes of Genius” mini-golf by New Jersey artists. Old and new have coexisted just fine.  Moreover, prior museum leaders have overseen four structural modifications to the museum, and none of them saw fit to separate “The Sun Vow” from the building’s historic entrance. Perhaps that is because this allegorical sculpture is both evocative and timeless, depicting a Native American elder with a young aspiring warrior shooting an arrow toward the sun to demonstrate his prowess and earn entry to manhood.

Given the hollowness of the claim that the museum cannot move into the future without moving this one sculpture, one must wonder whether something else is at play here — an insufficient respect for the museum’s history.  Ten years ago, the museum announced that it was going to auction off a William Merritt Chase portrait of a founding museum member, William B. Dickson. That plan was stopped when Dickson’s descendants understandably expressed outrage.

Unfortunately, “The Sun Vow” has no descendants to speak up for the museum’s history. That is left for us to do.  Please tell the museum and the Planning Board to do the right thing. Tell them that the museum has moved into the future perfectly well, for over a century, with “The Sun Vow” leading the way.  And there is no good reason for that to change.

Lisanne Renner, a Montclair resident and local historian, has been a member of the Montclair Art Museum for nearly a quarter-century.