The monumental Palladian-style Morris-Jumel Mansion, perched atop one of the highest points of New York City at 160th Street, is the oldest house in Manhattan. The Revolutionary War headquarters of General George Washington in the fall of 1776, it is perhaps best known as the site of a 1790 dinner party that the new president held with his illustrious cabinet, which included two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (the house was then an inn). Years later, it was also home to former vice president (and notorious duel winner) Aaron Burr. The house has been a museum since 1904.
Carol Ward is the Director of Education and Public Programs at the mansion, a position she has held since 2008. She organized the current exhibitions, “Women Unbound” by Andrea Arroyo and “George Washington Revisits Washington Heights,” by Felipe Galindo. These concurrent shows, which opened last fall in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month and are on view until January 7, 2013, feature work by husband and wife Mexican-born artists living in the neighborhood of the museum. See the artists talking about their Morris-Jumel projects here and here.
How did this project get started? And how did you pick the artists?
A few years ago we began doing a summer show with contemporary artists. We collaborated closely with NOMAA, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, giving them an open call to distribute to their members and working with the artist Trish Mayo to select the artists to participate. The museum always proposed a theme, inspired by the house, the neighborhood, or aspects of design from the collection, to provide an organizing principle for the show. Typically, we picked seven artists, one for each of the main rooms.
From there we moved on this year to trying a solo show. This is our first effort. We chose two artists, Felipe Galindo and Andrea Arroyo, both local and both Latino, an important reflection of our community here in Washington Heights. Felipe Galindo had had a piece in one of our summer shows, which we included in this exhibition.
What kinds of materials did you make available to the artists?
In addition to the information that is available online, the artists come to the house for a site visit — where they gain further historical content and also learn what they can and cannot do in their installations (for example, you cannot attach anything to the walls).
The rooms in the house are interpreted to different time periods. The dining room, for example, reflects the 1790 period when George Washington, in his first year as president, held his famous dinner party here. The octagonal sitting room, which was dedicated to entertaining, is focused on the earliest, Robert Morris 1765 period.
Are you finding that these contemporary installations are drawing new audiences to the mansion?
Yes, we are. We are able to reach out to groups that follow the artists. In the case of Andrea and Felipe’s exhibitions they brought their followers to the table. Our opening this past September had close to 80 people, 60 of which came from their mailing lists. In addition, I believe these exhibitions draw a younger crowd that wants to feel that historic houses are more accessible than have been in the past.
Were you able to allocate money for this program from your regular budget, or did you have to find a donor or sponsor? Does undertaking contemporary art exhibitions open up new avenues of potential funding for MJM?
We get funding for the exhibitions in general through our board, and through writing grants to organizations like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the New York Council for the Humanities. We try to find sponsors as well, as we usually do for programming that relates to the exhibitions rather than the exhibits themselves. The contemporary exhibitions do give us new avenues, and we’re hoping that going forward that the Historic House Trust will assist us with these new funding sources.
Are there exhibitions or installations at other institutions that serve as a model or have particularly inspired you?
The Brooklyn Museum has been a large inspiration. For the last three years they have been reactivating their period rooms by installing contemporary art inside them. The goal for them, and us, is to make the audience relate to the rooms in a different and more personal way. Also, the Newark Museum had an exhibition of the work of Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian artist who creates installations using 19th-century clothing and model set-ups. That was the largest inspiration.
What is on the books for 2013?
The unofficial tagline of the museum is “Contemporary meets Colonial.” We have programmed three more individual artist shows for 2013, and we are planning exhibitions with 19th-century historical material to complement them. For example, in the summer of 2013 we will be showcasing the work of Camilla Huey, a fashion designer who lives near the mansion. Her work, featuring these extraordinary, almost sculptural corsets, will highlight seven women in the life of Aaron Burr. Alongside that show the museum will present an exhibition on the history of make-up and beauty in the 19th century.
Are there storylines or themes from the house that you particularly look forward to exploring in the future?
I think all the themes that relate to the female presence in the house interest me the most. Anything with Eliza Jumel is always a juicy topic, and that is why I’m looking forward to Camilla Huey’s exhibition about female beauty and the use of corsets both historically and now as contemporary art pieces as well.