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A grounds renovation at the Montclair Art Museum will result in the removal of the bronze The Sun Vow, which has been at the entrance since 1914. Plans include a reflecting pond with a newly-commissioned sculpture.
DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Despite some opposition to moving revered sculpture “The Sun Vow,” which has graced the entrance to Montclair Art Museum since 1914, the planning board approved upgrades to the museum’s grounds including an outdoor sculpture garden, a public space with a water wall and a reflecting pond with a newly commissioned work of art.  

Safety issues over a retaining wall and fencing details were rectified by the museum’s architect as well, members concurred.

Plans call for a plaza on the south side of the building to serve as an outdoor gathering and museum events space. The highlight of the space would be a 48-foot wide, 10-foot high waterfall wall. 

A new reflecting pond is planned for the grassy area in front of the museum on South Mountain Avenue. Plans also include removing the Hermon Atkins MacNeil bronze sculpture “The Sun Vow” — which was donated by founder William T. Evans and has stood outside the museum’s entrance since 1914 — and placing a new, yet-to-be-commissioned piece of art in the pond. The tree located in the front, reportedly planted by Howard Van Vleck in 1957, will also be removed.

Suggestions to make the reflecting pond more easily accessible were also addressed. 

The circular driveway connecting the parking lot to the turn-around area will be repaved with granite blocks. Handicapped parking spaces along the driveway will also be reconfigured.

Some residents are concerned with the removal of The Sun Vow bronze sculpture, which has been outside the museum for over 100 years. The museum board is planning a more contemporary piece such as the one shown in this sketch.
PLANNING DEPARTMENT

The renovations to the 3.7 acres of outdoor space will allow for more educational activities and more accessibility, and to bring it up to date, said museum officials. 

“Over time [the museum] evolved to keep with the times and keep relevant. We are now looking to move outside to create an art park, to bring a similar energy of the inside to the outside,” said MAM director Lora Urbanelli.

THE SUN VOW

“The Sun Vow” by MacNeil depicts a Native American rite of passage, and is one of four Sun Vows in existence; the others are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Phoenix Art Museum.

Describing the sculpture, The Met writes, “Before a boy on the threshold of manhood could be accepted as a warrior, he was required to shoot an arrow directly into the sun. If the chieftain judging the boy’s prowess was so blinded by the sun’s rays that he could not follow the flight of the arrow, it was said to have gone out of sight, and the youth had passed the test.” 

While members of the public and historic preservations spoke out against the relocation of “The Sun Vow” — contending its placement is connected to the building and its founding, and that it “characterizes the entire landmark,” which is on the state and national registries of historic places — one artist explained that some sculptures were not meant to be site-specific. 

Artist Tom Nussbaum, who has his art installed at Bay Street Station, Edgemont Memorial Park and the museum grounds, spoke in favor of the renovations. The relocation of The Sun Vow should not play into the board’s decision, he added. 

“There are two types of sculptures,” he said. “One made in the studio and looking for a home, and then sculptures made for a specific site.” 

“The Sun Vow” was not site specific, he said.

“I expect one day my piece will be moved and I am totally ok with that,” he said.

Gail Stavitsky, MAM’s chief curator, told the board that it was up to the museum’s trustees to decide how, when and where its collection was to be displayed. 

“There’s no restriction left by [Evans] in his letter to the museum bestowing 54 paintings and two sculptures, knowing future generations would decide the uses of the pieces of art,” she said. 

After audience member Frank Godlewski mentioned that although he did not feel so, some might find the statue racist, museum president Frank Walter told the board that the 45 trustees feel it should be moved from the front and relocated, more appropriately positioned, and explained.

“We did not want to address what Frank just alluded to, that it could be viewed at racist. It is a symbol,” Walter said. “It is a stylized, romanticized symbol of a mythical American Indian cast 100 years ago. It is the wrong symbol to be in front of the museum at this time.”

Board members in the end concurred that they had no jurisdiction over the placement of the museum’s collection and that it could not affect their decision.

ONLY ONE VARIANCE NEEDED

The museum sought only one variance, for the height of the retaining walls and water wall. The wall would be 10 feet where seven is allowed, with an additional three feet and eight inches of fencing on top. 

A rendering of plans for an outdoor plaza at the Montclair Art Museum.
PLANNING DEPARTMENT

Since the top of 10-foot water wall, as well as parts of the retaining walls, is at ground level on the other side, at the last meeting board members raised safety issues concerns over the height of the walls, as well as over the fencing and placement of fencing that is proposed for the top of the walls.

Plans now call for the portions of the wall to be lower than 10 feet, and the fencing to be set back from the retaining wall where the water wall will be placed. The fencing will be continuous and made of vertical cables to deter climbing, as some board members were concerned with accessibility by children. 

The museum was designed by architect Albert Ross, and opened in 1914 as the brainchild of William T. Evans and Florence Lang, who merged their collections for installation into the museum. Those works include art by George Inness, Frederick Ballard, Charles Warren Eaton and Charles Parson, all of whom were part of Montclair’s artist colony in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

The museum grounds were developed in the 1940s as an arboretum by Van Vleck, horticulturist and honorary trustee.

Plans call for the relocation of nine trees and the removal of eight. Seventy-six new native trees and 67 shrubs will be planted throughout the grounds. The trees along Bloomfield Avenue and South Mountain will remain.

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