Living Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 62 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Tursi’s prolific, colorful, abstractions, en masse, amazed me.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
John Tursi, Abstract Paintings

A friend accompanied me to the Living Museum, and when Tursi asked her opinion of them, she replied unthinkingly, “This is crazy.”

I don’t believe in psychic powers. If they existed, we would have proved it by now.  And yet, I can’t deny that some places have an inexplicable aura about them — a feeling indelibly embedded in the stones and bricks.   Ellis Island, full of hopes and dreams from long ago.  The library at Columbia, resonant with over a century of stress and study.  

I mention this to set up my initial reaction to visiting the campus of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.  Even just driving by Creedmoor’s forbidding deco-institutional buildings along the Grand Central Parkway, it commands attention.  You may not know what it is or what goes on there, but it has a hulking presence.  For lack of a better word, it’s creepy.  It comes as no surprise that it is a mental hospital.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, QueensCreedmoor dates back to 1912, when an abandoned National Guard barracks was used to house a few dozen patients.  At its peak in 1959, the sprawling facility housed an inconceivable 7,000 patients.  Since then, the inpatient population has fallen, leading it to sell the farm (literally), and also to abandon some buildings, adding to the creepiness of the campus today.  And at Creedmoor’s heart, in the ginormous former inmate cafeteria, lies the Living Museum.

Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens

The Living Museum doesn’t give visitors much in the way of introduction or explanation. It  kind of just turns you loose in its world.  Then again, located where it is, I expect it doesn’t get many walk-ins.  So it’s probably safe assuming that anyone who finds their way there knows the basics.

Living (Museum) History

In the 1980s, Dr. Janos Marton, a Creedmoor psychologist, and Bolek Greczynski, an artist, started an art program to help patients express themselves, communicating what they had in their minds in ways that talking couldn’t allow.  The program worked, and so it’s continued, in a modest, somewhat threadbare and cluttered way, to this day.  

Dr. Marton still runs the place, even answering phones for appointments. Today the Living Museum is a blend of museum and active art studio, where Creedmoor patients create, display, and in some cases even sell, art in a range of different media.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens

A series of former dining rooms, now studios, run around the perimeter of an open, skylit, double-height central area.  All of it chock-full o’ art.  Strolling through the Living Museum’s two floors overwhelms the senses. It’s dense, with things to see on every surface.  If I saw it without explanation I’d suppose it was some kind of movie set by an overachieving production designer.  Wandering through its corridors reminded me of a video game, one with a lot of exploring, without knowing what to expect around each corner and through each door.  A mural.  A family of overlarge horse-people constructed from twisted wire.  A scary antique dentist chair. A wild indoor garden.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
The Living Museum Garden

Living Things

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
John Tursi and his Mighty Horse Family

John Tursi (mentioned in my “favorite thing” above) welcomed us into his studio where he was working, patiently, on a complex wire sculpture requiring a zillion coat hangers, which he gets for free from a local dry cleaners.  He talked about his process, how he comes up with ideas (he has some sculptures based on Picassos) and what it’s like working at the Living Museum.

I also particularly liked a corner devoted to a sort of shrine to Dr. Marton. It included a series of portraits of the museum director. When you can’t think of what to paint, paint Dr. M.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
Shrine to Dr. Janos Marton

And we ran across another shrine (maybe?) too, though whomever or whatever it was dedicated to was more obscure.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
A Shrine?

And finally, although Tursi’s abstract paintings stood out as my favorites, I feel compelled to include this picture, which vividly sticks with me.  I don’t know who made it, or even quite why I liked it. But if I ever write a children’s book about the stock market, I’d absolutely want to track down this artist to illustrate it.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
Unknown Artist, But a Definite Bear Market

Outsider Art

Some months back, the American Folk Art Museum‘s exhibitions of the work of a pair of institutionalized people made me uncomfortable.  I felt concerned whether the creators of those works really understood or would have wanted strangers gawking at them.  And that perhaps those severely ill artists’ “friends” and managers were just profiting from their illnesses.

The Living Museum allays those qualms in spades. The artists I met working there clearly enjoyed having visitors and talking about their work.  Everyone I spoke with was interesting and engaging, and passionate about what they did. Though a place for mentally ill people, the Living Museum feels joyous, therapeutic.  It couldn’t be less exploitative.

It even makes art out of the biggest cliché of a place like Creedmoor.  John Tursi  remarked that when Creedmoor phased out straitjackets (more recently than you’d think, perhaps), the artists at the Living Museum asked for them, as art materials.  It’s disconcerting to see a smiling Einstein painted on the back of a straitjacket.  In the way that great art should be.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
Einstein on the Straitjacket

Getting to Creedmoor without a car requires significant time and patience.  However, the Living Museum is absolutely unique among New York institutions.  I met artists whose paths I’d never otherwise cross, and saw art I’d never otherwise see, in a place I’d otherwise avoid.  

I wrote a while back that we should define “museums” as places that inspire in addition to educating and entertaining.  The Living Museum definitely inspires.  It made me want to take up a pen or a paintbrush or a wire hanger and create something. For anyone who cares about art, compassion, or the human condition, I strongly recommend a visit.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens

For Reference:

Address Building 75, 79-25 Winchester Boulevard, Queens Village, Queens (enter via the South Entrance)
Cost  General Admission:  Free, but appointments required to visit (718-264-3490)
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