In a museum full of trinkets and artifacts in the City of Amsterdam, an effort is underway to bring contemporary art to the Montgomery County community.
The Noteworthy and Sanford Carpet mills in Amsterdam are hard to miss when driving into the city along Route 67.
But you may not have noticed the curious collection of oddities called the Walter Elwood Museum.
And this summer, something new is opening in the old industrial complex.
“Nothing but blank walls right now… so this long hall was just storage for the museum for a long time…”
Walk through the rooms full of kitchsy collectibles, taxidermy, and the space where a model train club still meets to ride the rails, and you’ll come to the next evolution of the museum: Walter Elwood Contemporary.
It’s the idea of Brent Birnbaum, an artist who came to Amsterdam about five years ago to escape the busy art world of New York City.
“So I was a little burned out after doing it and juggling my own art career for years so I just wanted break, it was nice to get out of the city, just be left alone and then I get to know Ann Peconie, the director of the Walter Elwood Museum and we have just established a really nice rapport over the years, and I thought she would just go for this idea,” said Birnbaum.
Birnbaum’s idea was, in exchange for the museum letting him use a space on the other side of the building as a studio, to establish a new, 2,000 square-foot gallery, as Ann Peconie explains.
“And a couple years ago, Brent came to me and said, ‘what about this idea? What if I made it a gallery?’ And he said, ‘I will take care of everything, I’ll have the gallery made, I’ll have it painted, I’ll have everything taken care, I will take care of those expenses if you let me use this space. I’ll bring up artists from the city and around the country and around the world…’”
Birnbaum, who still bounces back and forth from Queens to Amsterdam, sees the project, dubbed Walter Elwood Contemporary, as a unique asset to the former mill town.
“I love the City of Amsterdam, I love the architecture, I see all these interesting spaces, I’m like walking through the clock tower next door and fantasizing about curating, but I didn’t want it to be ‘Brent Birnbaum’s art gallery.’ I really like that it’s under the name Walter Elwood.”
Elwood was a former superintendent and educator for the Amsterdam public school district. A traveler and collector by nature, he had a love for teaching kids using things he picked up on his trips, as Ann Peconie explains.
“So Walter was a science teacher. He traveled by foot and by bus and by trolley to all the different schools. He was known to carry many suitcases. And he went a different elementary school every day and provided the science program, and that is really how the collection started, him gathering together things for the science program,” said Peconie.
The first interation of the Walter Elwood museum was at the former Fifth Ward School on Amsterdam’s south side. Elwood died in the 1950’s and left all the objects to the school district.
“I think people trusted him. And I think he advocated for the museum quite a bit. If somebody took a trip to, you know, Japan… which didn’t happen very much for Amsterdam residents except the quite affluent… he would ecourage those people to bring back some artifacts that he could share with the people of Amsterdam,” said Peconie.
The collection kept growing over the years, and moved to a few other locations, before Hurricane Irene flooded its home in the Guy Park Manor in 2011, destroying many items. The museum, now looking to its future, moved to its current home in 2014.
“I am honored to be one of the first artists to be shown at the Walter Elwood Museum…”
Theresa McTague is one of two artists to be featured in Walter Elwood Contemporary’s exhibit that will open July 10th. She first got acquainted with Birnbaum four years ago after answering a Craigslist ad to assist in his studio.
“The mission of Walter Elwood himself was to bring culture to Amsterdam and I kind of feel like that is what Brent is doing, in some way, it’s like carrying on Walter Elwood’s legacy.”
McTague’s paintings will be on display, paired with works by Brooklyn-based artist Natalie Ochoa.
When opened next month, Walter Elwood Contemporary will also feature a small ‘zine shop, dedicated to the DIY physical medium used to share essays, poetry, comics, and drawings traditionally printed with help of a copy machine.
Birnbaum also wants to someday see sculpture outside the gallery, and perhaps open the space up to other uses like live music.
With leaders in Amsterdam also looking for ways to draw buzz to the post-industrial city, Birnbaum thinks bringing a contemporary gallery will help fill a void.
“I wouldn’t want to do this in Troy, where there’s already a little art network and there’s galleries, I feel like ‘I’m definitely not needed over here.’ But maybe I could build something that people who are living here appreciate, older people, maybe someone in high school sees their artwork for the first time not in a school…”
To learn more about the Walter Elwood Museum and Walter Elwood Contemporary, visit: