IN March 2006 President of the Closter New Jersey Belskie Museum of Art and Science, Myron J. Lewis, named me a curator of the museum. The museum’s board approved that appointment April 13, 2006. The official title was Curator Numismatics Art. That was intended to cover all medallic and related items the museum had in their collections.
I had learned of the museum four years earlier from the National Sculpture Society and wrote to museum about Abram Belskie as a medallist. I mentioned I had known the artist, had visited him in his studio several times and was very familiar with his medallic work since I had cataloged his medals for Medallic Art Company which had produced most all of his medallic creations.
This led to a telephone call from Mike Lewis and we exchanged phone conversations for four months. We discussed Belskie’s work and I learned how the museum came to be established (revealed below). But I guess I proved to Mike’s satisfaction I really knew about Belskie’s medallic creations. In August 2002 I requested permission to come to Closter to examine and take notes on the medals in the museum’s collection.
Mike granted approval and set an appointment for Friday, August 30, 2002. I came prepared with wife Shirley to assist, a list of Belskie’s known works and paraphernalia for taking notes including magnifying glasses for examining minute detail and scales to weight silver specimens.
We did examine all the medals and started on the plaster models but it took all day Friday. We came prepared, as was required, for a second day. We stayed at a nearby motel and worked the Saturday examining the plaster models in the museum’s basement storeroom.
I measured image size of plaster models and dictated details as Shirley recorded a description lengthy enough to identify the medal made from each model. That also took the full day.
Back in Connecticut I wrote a 51-page catalog of Belskie’s medals and sent that to Mike Lewis. Not only did it include a list of all medals and models with complete details but a bibliography of all published references mentioning these I could find, plus a glossary on the medallic terms used in cataloging.
My phone conversations with Mike Lewis continued. That led to my 2006 curatorial appointment. Since then I have suggested two other medallic estates which the museum should acquire. New Jersey sculptor Roger Brown had died and the family wanted to know what to do with his trove of tools, medals, and models. The other was a much larger archive of an artist who was still alive (but resided outside the state of New Jersey).
Mike Lewis followed up for both of those collections, visiting each in turn. Unfortunately he became ill and neither resulted in a donation to the museum.
Exhibitions are the paramount purpose of this museum. Exhibitions of art of every kind are shown throughout the year. Obviously an exhibition of Belskie’s medallic work was called for. so an exhibit was planned for Fall 2009. To make this exhibit even more meaningful, the American medalists who had exhibited at the international symposium of F.I.D.E.M. (the International Federation of Medallic Artists) that year leant their medallic works to show as well.
Grants for a publication was obtained from the Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural & Historical Affairs, Capitol One bank and the Van Pelt Foundation. I wrote a 12-page brochure on Abram Belskie Numismatics: The Art of Coins and Medals. It illustrated some of his work, contained a very brief biography, told how he prepared his models, a glossary, and a timeline on the artist. The two-month exhibit was on view from September 13 to November 15, 2009.
Closter New Jersey was also the home of another famous modern sculptor, Marcel Jovine, who lived only two blocks from the museum. He, too, became, like Aram Belskie, a medallist late in life. But Jovine created coin models that became United States coins of commemorative interest, in addition to highly artistic medals.
Jovine died January 2003. His two daughters have kept his Closter home intact, where his models are stored. In the Fall of 2008 the Jovine daughters hired me to catalog their father’s medallic works – medals, coins and models.
This required more than just a written description. We had to build new shelving to store plaster models – photography every item – plus a full written description. I hired a photographer who with a helper photographed all items in three day’s time. I delivered that illustrated catalog early in 2009.
For years I had been in touch with the family of sculptor Joseph DiLorenzo. A third generation sculptor, he lived and worked nearby in Alpine New Jersey, less than three miles from the Belskie Museum.
Here then were three of America’s top metallic sculptors, all neighbors! I came to learn they were all friends of each other, often traded tips, encouragement, and even commissions! among each other. If one was too busy, he would pass off a job to his close friend. For a large commission, like a series of medals, two would often do half the design and models.
I’m certain if one had rush job and was short of plaster … or clay … he could call on his fellow sculptor for a cup … or bucket full, instead of having to travel the New York City for a fresh supply. Friends would do that.
DiLorenzo died December 2001. His widow died two years later. Thus I was in contact with his three children. DiLorenzo was the most productive of all, creating just under 400 medals over a 32-year career.
I learned he had destroyed his plaster models before he retired to Florida in 1988, but he had a large collection of medals. Before he died he even invited me to Florida to come catalog his medals there. “I have a closet full,” he relaed.
In 2009 son Michael DiLorenzo informed me they have cleared out their parents home in Florida. I stated that if he could bring the medals and related items to me I would catalog them. On January 2, 2010 he delivered to me the medals, a few plaster casts and sketches.
This began a two-year period of cataloging, refurbishing, and some photographing of the family collection. In addition to the medals DiLorenzo had created there were nearly 150 study medals in the collection by other artists.
The wheels were turning in my mind. As a curator I can imagine an exhibit I would like see occurr. The theme would be The Three Closter Medallists –Belskie, DiLorenzo and Jovine.
Perhaps, I thought, the families would want to donate those medallic items to the Belskie Museum – for the Jovine and DiLorenzo items to join those of Belskie already ensconced. Meanwhile I would persuade the museum officials to put such an exhibit in their upcoming exhibit schedule.
Early in the year 2014 would be ideal. You see, in 1964 DiLorenzo and Jovine created the Closter New Jersey Tercentennial Medal. It only had one side but designed and modelled by the two sculptors. Year 2014 would be the 350th anniversary of the town. I see a new medal, perhaps incorporating their 1964 design, motif, or even that as one side of a new anniversary medal!
We must Plan Ahead. It would benefit the exhibit. And benefit the town!
How the Belskie Museum came into existence is interesting. There was a group of local citizens who had breakfast every morning at a favorite eatery. Belskie was one of those participants. Others were prominent businessmen, some were members of the local Lion’s Club.
When Belskie died November 1988, the Breakfast Group learned his house containing his studio and all its contents were soon up for sale. Belskie’s two sons were not interested in preserving the studio or contents containing much of their father’s work. It would go to whoever purchased the house.
The Breakfast Group generated the idea “Let’s build a museum and put all Belskie’s art work in it.” It could be a project of the local Lion’s Club. The sons were receptive to donating the entire contents of he studio.
The seed of an idea grew. Construction company members of the Lion’s Club began plans. The City of Closter had land adjacent to their library that would be ideal. If they built it would the City accept it?
Good things sometimes happen. Lion’s Club members pitched in, volunteering help, often physical labor. The museum got built before the Belskie house was sold.
Mike told me they took truckload after truckload out of that basement studio and hauled it to the new museum building. The museum is owned by the City, largely due to the local Lion’s Club. It was named after Abram Belskie, who used to sit with many of his neighbors for breakfast on frequent mornings.
The museum is operated entirely with volunteer help. On my infrequent visits to the museum, I am enthralled by the camaraderie, enthusiasm, dedication, devotion and interest of those volunteers. That’s community spirit!
For more information visit the Belskie Museum web site.