Those looking for a tranquil respite from the art-market hurly-burly should consider the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden at 28 Deveau Road in North Salem, N.Y., which reopens on Apr. 14, 2007. About an hour’s drive from Manhattan, this deliciously eccentric cultural reservoir was founded by the curator and set designer Natalie Hays Hammond in 1957 with money inherited from her father, a mining engineer who discovered King Solomon’s Mines in southern Africa, immortalized by the novelist H. Rider Haggard.
Bivouacked on a sleepy country road, the Hammond is only open Wednesday to Saturday from noon to 4 pm. The staff is all female and can be described as rigorously and cheerily feminist. Lunch is served, as required, in the main gallery. When my curator wife and I last visited in November at 2:45 pm, we found exactly one round country table set for lunch, as if the staff knew that we, and we alone, were coming. Our salads, fresh, sumptuous and gigantic, were a perfect prelude to a walk in the spectacular Japanese Stroll Garden. Changeable outdoor sculptures by local artists are discreetly tucked under Japanese red maples and feathery green sawtooth maples. Tiny Buddhas grin peaceably from islands in the lily ponds, inviting Platonic air kisses.
The Hammond Museum itself is distinguished by a collection of 495 portrait photographs by one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance, the fecund Carl Van Vechten. Artists such as Alvin Ailey and Ella Fitzgerald are lovingly captured in dewy youth, and the influence of Van Vechten on Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava is readily apparent. Natalie Hammond also collected stunning, ornate fans, usually painted with romantic scenes from 19th century France, depicting dappled lovers wafting through the glade, but the museum predominately emphasizes the rigors of Japanese craft with shows of elaborate paper constructions, brush painting seminars and regular tea ceremonies.
Programs for children are plentiful, the gift shop a modest nook. A 2 pm arrival for lunch on a weekday afternoon, if you can escape, is probably your best bet. You won’t be disappointed.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).