Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art / Alice Austin House

Alice Austen, Auntie Minn and Oswald Müller. 1884, by Alice Austen
8/15/2010, Sunday
Alice Austen House ……………………………...… 0.5 hr

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art …....… $5 each
Alice Austen House ……………………………….... $2 each

In our museum travels, we’ve seen quite a number of historic buildings made into museums, and we’ve begun to realize that these types of museum fall into two distinct categories: 1) buildings preserved for their historical significance, like being the setting of an important event, or 2) buildings associated with a notable/notorious person.  These two types have different styles of exhibits and tours and end up being very different experiences.  In most of NYC, the second category is far more rare than the first, but not in Staten Island. 

Throughout its history Staten Island has been legendary (perhaps infamous) for its resident odd balls, characters and misfits.  A surprising number of artists, actors, poets, inventors and revolutionaries have lived on the island, often seeking refuge from Manhattan and the world.  As an example, two notorious revolutionaries lived here during their periods of exile: Mexican President Santa Anna, and the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi.  There is a bizarre rumor that Santa Ana was critical in the invention of chewing gum on Staten Island, as he imported chicle, the base of chewing gum, to replace rubber in carriage tires. 

Gum isn’t the only innovation connected to Staten Island.  Charles Goodyear (rubber vulcanization) and Antonio Mecci (possibly the first inventor of the telephone) both worked on their inventions here, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge built the first tennis court in the US on Staten Island (it caught on quick).  The island has been home to a number of extremely odd musicians, from Gene Simons (of Kiss) to Lady Gaga, and the writers who have lived here are legion, ranging from the poet Langston Hughes to the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.

With so many creative characters on the island, it’s not surprising that four of Staten Island’s historic buildings memorialize a few of it’s odder residents: spiritualist Jacques Marchais, turn of the century photographer Alice Austen, maritime artist John A. Noble, controversial inventor Antonio Mecci and his unlikely roommate the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Girabaldi.  

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
While all of these people certainly had their quirks, to us the strangest of these museums was the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art.  Jacques Marchais (born Edna Coblenz, 1887-1948) was an actress from Ohio who, for reasons known only to her, became fascinated with Tibetan art, architecture and Buddhism.  She never visited Tibet and didn't consider herself a Buddhist, but she was a charismatic member of a group of New York spiritualists in the early 1900’s and is credited for being one of the people who popularized Buddhism in American

Jacques Marchais
Jacques Marchais owned a Tibetan art gallery in Manhattan and eventually amassed a personal collection of over 3000 pieces, once the largest collection of Tibetan art in the United States.  Toward the end of her life, she built a meditation center and retreat in the hills of Staten Island, designing it and the surrounding gardens to resemble pictures she’d seen of Tibetan monasteries.  This historic building was the first Himalayan-style architecture in the United States and is now a museum, with meditation cells and a series of small gardens arranged in steps down a leafy, terraced slope.  

Sadly, the collection has shrunk since Marchais’s death.  The museum passed through a number of hands and many pieces were lost, sold off and possibly stolen.  However, today the museum is in better care and runs an active events program.  During our visit they were setting up for a Tibetan cooking demonstration.  Two rooms of the house are open for viewing: the library and the "Temple Room,” with a three-tiered mica altar.  While the collection is smaller than in Marchais’s day, exhibits still include a number of valuable and interesting pieces of Tibetan art, including ritual knives, alter sets, furniture, textiles and lots of bronze deities.  The museum also hosts the occasional modern displays.  Paul particularly enjoyed a colorful photography exhibit showcasing the current people of Tibet.

To Paul and me, the Tibetan art at the Jacques Marchais Museum was similar to what we had seen at the Rubin Museum (the large Tibetan art museum in Manhattan), and, unfortunately, we encountered the same problems that we had had at the Rubin.  Namely, that the objects were presented with very little explanation.  As we have no background in Buddhism or Tibetan art, we were left with a lot of questions.  We also wanted more information about Jacques Marchais herself, an intriguing woman who lived life on her own terms, inspiring others with an ancient religion and culture that she had no connection with, other than her own curiosity and imagination.

Alice Austen House
Another fascinating Staten Island woman was the subject of the next museum, the Alice Austen House.  Alice Austen (1866 -1952) was an early photographer at a time when images were captured with huge box cameras, glass plates and hand-mixed chemicals.  Austen started taking pictures at the age of 10, her first camera an exotic gift from a world-traveling uncle.  Photography soon became a big part of her life and she took a camera nearly everywhere she went, taking thousands of photographs and capturing a large slice of the life of a Victorian age New York socialite at home and at play.  
Alice and Girlfriends, by Alice Austen

New York street scene, Alice Austen
Alice Austen was active and athletic, and her pictures show Austen, her family and her close group of friends at island events, the beach, playing tennis, biking around the island and traveling around the U.S.  Austen also developed an early photojournalistic style, documenting New York City street life, and taking extensive pictures of the labs at the immigrant Quarantine Station on Staten Island. 

Trude and I, masked, short skirts by Alice Austen
There’s no doubt that Alice Austen was a highly skilled photographer.  However, she is known for reasons beyond her artistic talent.  There is a lot of evidence indicating that she was a lesbian who lived life fairly far out of the closet, during a time when that was rare, to say the least.  Austen was part of a close-nit group of woman who did not associate with men, called "The Darns" (short for "darn those women who won't date men”) and some of her photographs of this group are highly suggestive, showing women partially undressed or cross-dressed as men.  Austen lived with a woman, Gertrude Tate, for fifty-five years. 

Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men, Alice Austen
Thus the evidence of Alice Austen’s sexuality seems pretty clear, and the several groups of women in buzz cuts walking around the museum probably had strong opinions on the matter.  Alice Austen is held up in the lesbian community as an example of a well-documented lesbian life and artist at the turn of the century.  You’ll find her more gender-bending photography on a lot of gay and lesbian art sites on the web.  However, what you won’t find is any mention of her sexuality at the museum.  The museum does not show any of her suggestive photography and refuses access to any investigation of her sexuality.  This alleged cover up has been the subject of more than one documentary.

Alice Austen House
The Alice Austen House museum is in the house that Austen lived in most of her life, perched in a small park on the shore of Staten Island, with a glorious view of the entrance to NY harbor and all of its shipping traffic.  The house is well restored, with Victorian furnishings and an antique camera; however, on the whole, we were disappointed in the museum.  Thousands of Austen’s photographs survive, but only a handful were exhibited, and there was no tour and very little information on her life at all, with or without the lesbian question.  We found more information on a modern photography exhibit in the house than we did on Alice Austen.  (For the record, the modern photography was about distorted body images, and both Paul and I thought it was pretty cool.)  However, it seemed as if the museum, in an effort to remove any question of Austen's sexuality, had also removed most of her art and all of her personality, reducing it to just a small historic house.  

Miss E. Alice Austen, 1888 by Captain Oswald Müller
In summary, both Paul and I think that historical houses that focus on people, not events, are the best kinds of historical houses.  Instead of being caught in amber, these houses feel more active and seem to connect with the present.  It's no surprise to us that both of these museums had modern exhibits mixed in with historical ones.  However, at both the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art and the Alice Austen House we would have liked more information about the art exhibited and the fascinating people featured, and a good tour would really help both of these museums.  Despite this, we enjoyed the insight into Staten Island’s creative, odd-ball heritage at both of these museums, and loved the fact that the island works hard to preserve the memories of its more unusual residents, even if conservative museum boards don’t always approve of their lifestyles. 

Images in this post, from the top: Alice Austen, Auntie Minn and Oswald Müller. 1884, by Alice Austen; exterior of Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art; portrait of Jacques Marchais; two statues at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art; exterior of the Alice Austen House; Alice and Girlfriends, by Alice Austen; New York scene by Alice Austen; Trude and I, masked, short skirts, by Alice Austen; Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men, 1891 by Alice Austen; interior of the Alice Austen House; Miss E. Alice Austen at 22, 1888 by Captain Oswald Müller.