Walking into Amsterdam’s Walter Elwood Museum several years ago, artist Brent Birnbaum felt a connection to the place.
At the time, he was looking for studio space outside of the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, where he lived.
Birnbaum stumbled upon much more than that at the museum, where he has since not only secured studio space but also opened a contemporary art gallery called Walter’s.
“A lot of my artwork that I’ve been cultivating for 20 years is about objects and building collections,” Birnbaum said. “So when I first walked in here in 2017, I immediately felt like ‘This is for me. This is not just by coincidence.’”
The museum is a maze of approximately 20,000 objects from portraits to cups to taxidermied animals, collected locally and around the globe. The collection was started by Walter Elwood, an educator in the Greater Amsterdam School District in the early 1900s. He opened a museum in the Fifth Ward School in the hopes of bringing objects from his travels and the travels of others to students who might not get the opportunity to see the world. The museum has moved locations a few times over the years and is currently at 100 Church Street, in the former Sanford Carpet Mill industrial complex.
Walter’s gallery opened last year and was born out of a partnership between Birnbaum and the museum, which is led by Executive Director Ann Peconie.
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”68″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]“He saw a space that we had that we were using for storage [and] he said this would be a great contemporary gallery,” Peconie said.
Birnbaum had experience running galleries in Rockaway Beach storefronts that had been abandoned because of Hurricane Sandy. The goal of the galleries was to build the neighborhood back while helping out artists.
“That was the type of thing I was interested in doing; something for the community, not just for artists,” Birnbaum said.
Walter’s has a similar story.
Birnbaum cleaned out the former storage space at the museum, had a few exhibit walls put in and repainted it. He also commissioned artist Lauren Clay to design a zine room that functions as a store and an exhibit space.
Walter’s began hosting exhibitions last year, featuring artists from the greater Capital Region and from the New York City area.
“I like to find artists who haven’t had a ton of opportunities yet and I feel deserve them. I like searching for artists that are underrecognized,” Birnbaum said.
That includes Jeff Wigman and Panayiotis Terzis, whose works will be on view through Sunday when there will be a closing reception from 2-4 p.m.
Wigman is a Troy-based artist whose oil paintings have intense narrative lines that are at times thoughtfully chaotic. His exhibit, titled “The Air We Breathe,” features an eerie painting with skeletons walking hand in hand on a sunny day down a mountainous path. Another work depicts a large ornate tower leaning toward two figures standing by an out-of-place portable toilet.
Terzis, whose work is featured in the zine room, is a New York City-based artist, printer and publisher. The exhibit at Walter’s is titled “Mega Pan,” and includes a wide range of Terzis’ works, including gouache paintings, screenprints on plexiglass, books and more.
Starting Thursday, Walter’s and the museum will host an exhibit of artwork from students in the Greater Amsterdam School District.
From Peconie’s perspective, the museum is returning to its roots.
“We are just so excited to be networking with the school district again because this museum was part of the school district for many, many years because Walter was a teacher,” Peconie said.
The museum used to host a student showcase but hasn’t been able to in more than a decade.
“It’s like the Greater Amsterdam art show is coming home,” Peconie said.
For students, seeing their work on display in a gallery/museum can have a big impact, according to Donna Marek, a longtime art teacher at the Marie Curie Institute of Engineering and Communications who is one of the teachers involved in the show.
“It’s such pride for them to show their work to the community and to their parents because they worked so hard on it,” Marek said.
“For us, as art teachers, it’s just wonderful to show the students’ work but also it’s important for us that the community understands how important the visual arts are in the world, how many different careers you can get in the arts field.”
The show won’t necessarily include work from every student in the district but it will give an overview of many of the mediums and projects that the students have worked on over the last year.
“It’s instilling that pride in their work and their ability. We want them to gain pride and that’s what’s most important,” Marek said.
There will be an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday and the show will run through Sunday, May 15.
More foot traffic
Since Walter’s opened, Peconie said it’s drawn more people to the museum.
“We’re meeting the sort of people that wouldn’t necessarily come to the museum,” Peconie said.
To get to Walter’s, visitors have to walk through the museum first and so even those who are coming to see Wigman’s or Terzis’ work end up meandering through the museum, which has about 15 different exhibit rooms.
The vastness of the collection piqued Birnbaum’s interest years ago and since learning more about Elwood, he’s felt more of a connection to the educator.
“A lot of my artwork that I’ve been cultivating for 20 years is about objects and building collections,” Birnbaum said.
Previously, that’s included vintage board games, which he’s deconstructed to create intricate collages. Recently, he’s collected colored toilets, which were popular during the mid-1900s, to create a large-scale installation. He’s also collected Pound Puppies, toys that were popular in the 1980s and whose ads were premised on the idea that kids had to rescue the stuffed dogs.
Peconie sees similarities between the artist and the educator.
“Walter collected a lot of [objects] that were no longer purposeful and Brent’s art is taking things that are not purposeful anymore and making them magical. There is a lot of connection between them,” Peconie said.
Birnbaum has also created an online presence for Walter’s, with a website and an Instagram account.
“Some people on Instagram will call me Walter because my user name is Walter Elwood,” Birnbaum said. “I feel like this has become an alias for me. And I feel like I’m really honoring what Walter Elwood was doing.”