Keeping Sendak’s legacy, with an in-town museum
Photos by Deborah Hayn
Maurice Sendak’s signature sweater remains draped over the back of his chair and his worn slippers are neatly poised beneath—just as the acclaimed author and artist left them when he died in 2012. In his studio, filled with artwork and memorabilia, his paint and brushes remain at the ready alongside illustrations from his last work in progress, No-Nose. It’s as if the beloved creator of such children’s books as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There might slide into his chair at any moment and get back to work.
In fact, Sendak’s entire Ridgefield home looks as if he might return from one of his daily walks and settle into his routine. Which is exactly how the Maurice Sendak Foundation he created before he died intends to keep it. In accordance with his wishes, his home will remain a study center and archive for his work and his invaluable collection of art, artifacts, and memorabilia. Currently a treasure-trove of over 10,000 pieces of artwork, manuscripts, and other working materials are being categorized and protected in an off-site location awaiting a future addition to his property where they will eventually be archived.
With this in mind, an independent exploratory team has proposed that a museum be created in the Philip Johnson building on the former Schlumberger property so the general public might one day be able to appreciate his works and collections. In January both the Sendak Foundation and board of selectmen enthusiastically endorsed the team to take the next steps, which include identifying and interviewing professionals and institutions to map out the challenges ahead. If all goes as planned, a newly formed independent non-profit would rent from the town the building, which was purchased along with surrounding property in order to control its destiny.
Stretching alongside one of Ridgefield’s winding back roads just shy of the New York State border, Sendak’s 1790s colonial could be a museum in itself. Draped over the piano is a worn, but intact Abraham Lincoln campaign flag. Herman Melville’s traveling writing desk complete with doodles mingles amongst book-lined shelves and drawers filled with Sendak’s original sketches. Often sitting at the bottom of his bed and sometimes right by the pillow is John Keats’ death mask (a plaster cast made of a person’s face after his death, as a momento or to capture portraits), believed to be one of only three worldwide. Fine art and photography line the walls including originals by Rembrandt and Goya. Behind a glass-front cabinet, small working toys handmade by Sendak and his brother still operate perfectly half a century later. A painting done by Sendak of his longtime partner Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007, is prominently displayed. And in the midst, crowding shelf after shelf is his collection of Mickey Mouse miniatures, mainly from the 1930s.
“He had at least 10,000 Mickeys,” says foundation president Lynn Caponera, who worked for Sendak for over forty years and was entrusted by him to perpetuate his legacy. She is an executor of his will, leads the charge in carrying things out according to Sendak’s intent, and is in a sense, the keeper of his stories. She knows the significance of almost every piece in his collection. “Most of what he collected was used as inspiration for something he was working on including Mickey Mouse. Or, he collected things from people he admired like Keats and Melville,” she says.
It was always understood that Sendak’s house wasn’t suitable for general public visitors. So when an idea was presented that the Philip Johnson building might be an ideal location to showcase Sendak’s works and collections on a rotating basis along with that of other artists, Caponera and fellow board members leaped at the opportunity.
The location, she says, has all the right components. It is in Ridgefield, Sendak’s home for over forty years, a place he loved. He would have appreciated that another artist designed the building. Philip Johnson was an influential American architect known for his postmodern work including The Glass House in New Canaan, a National Historic Trust site. “One thing that is also very appealing is that it is next to the auditorium which would be an ideal place for performances,” says Caponera.
A lover of opera, ballet, and children’s theatre, Sendak designed sets and costumes for adaptations of his own work as well as that of others. Where the Wild Things Are was staged as an opera in 1979 (Sendak also wrote the libretto). He created sets for such venerable operas as Mozart’s Magic Flute, performed by the Houston Grand Opera.
Sendak designed both sets and costumes for the award-winning Pacific Northwest Ballet production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In the 1990s, he collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner to produce an English version of Brundibár, a children’s Holocaust opera by Czech composer Hans Krása. (Born in 1928 to Jewish immigrants, Sendak was tormented by the Holocaust and many of his relatives died in concentration camps.) Caponera adds that the Philip Johnson building would be ideal space to showcase large set designs and costumes from these works that were so important to Sendak.
“Maurice belongs to everybody,” says Caponera. Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Ahlstrom, agrees, saying it is a great opportunity to showcase two historically important and incredible individuals. It’s great for our town.