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Trenton Museum Society at 50

A Story of the People Who Made it Happen

text by Ilene Dube

Through the portico and beyond the transomed doors, there’s some kind of magic going on at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. Something that lures visitors from near and far to come again and again.

Some are drawn by the magnificent Italianate mansion (“the house on the hill”) designed by John Notman, or the setting in Cadwalader Park, designed by Father of American Landscape Architecture Frederick Law Olmsted. Others come for the collection of world-renowned pottery and historic artifacts, or for the evocative rotating contemporary art exhibitions featuring leading artists of our region. Then there are the conversations and films on Trenton history, the concerts, children’s arts programs, Sundaes on the Veranda – even memories of a one-time monkey house have been a magnet throughout the years.

But the one element cited again and again for the draw is the extraordinary people who have poured their passions into sustaining the Trenton Museum Society. At its 50th anniversary gala – to be held at the Trenton Country Club on Thursday, October 19, 2023 – a handful of those magic makers will be honored.

Although long-time Cadwalader Park resident Carolyn Stetson now lives in Colorado, she remains a stalwart supporter of TMS. Having served more terms as president than anyone else – beginning with two terms in the mid 1980s, one in the 90s, and four terms between 2002 and 2011 – the former West Windsor-Plainsboro High School English teacher played a vital role in cultivating the museum’s collection. “The Museum Society has always been hands-on, doing a lot of the things a staff would do,” she says. (The museum has operated without a paid director since 2011, due to city budget cuts.) “As president, I always saw my role as someone who brought the volunteer board together and worked to build consensus.”

It was hard work! But Stetson was driven and never stopped to count the hours – it was her passion, after all. There were times she’d be working at the museum until 11 p.m., and would only leave to keep the alarms from going off.

“I would go to all the committee meetings to get everyone to work together with the full board,” she says. After the City eliminated the paid director position, “we developed our own exhibits, selected art, hung it, and handled all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Even though there are times when it seems the tail is wagging the dog because there is so much to do, I can’t remember a time when we would not have thought we had an important role to play in the community. The museum was a way to support local artists and bring the community together.

“The jobs people do for the museum are so meaningful,” Stetson continues, “and they involve working with others who became great friends. It’s because we’re a hands-on board that we can do that.”

One of the highlights during Stetson’s tenure was a collaboration with McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. During its 2002 production of “Crowns” (written and directed by Regina Taylor, adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry), about women and their church hats in North Carolina, Ellarslie mounted an exhibition of the photographs the play was based on and held a tea for the women pictured in the book. This was followed by several other collaborations with McCarter Theatre, bringing in new audiences.

Among the other collaborations Stetson fondly recalls are with the African American Cultural Festival, held in Cadwalader Park for several years.

It takes one to know one – and Stetson has immense praise for current Board President Joan Perkes, who had to step into the role during the sudden departure of her predecessor, and kept the museum not only fully operational but vibrant during the pandemic lockdown, bringing in new programming and reaching out to communities the museum could build new relationships with. Perkes is now serving a sixth term.

There are challenges operating a non-profit in Trenton, for sure, where the funds are not easy to raise. “I don’t know how many fundraising workshops I attended that never addressed arts and culture in cities like Trenton,” says Stetson. And yet the art lovers, the history lovers, and the community that continually fills the building are proof of the essential need for such a cultural institution.

All the way from Colorado Stetson says “it’s still my baby. I have a lot of artwork I bought from artists I got to know. It was fun learning about their processes, techniques, and inspiration.”

It was during Stetson’s tenure 40 years ago that the Ellarslie Open was born. Mary Yess is lovingly known as the “Mother of the Ellarslie Open,” the museum’s signature annual exhibition that draws artists from all over the region. Jurors, often curators and administrators from leading museums, winnow a selection of artwork from the hundreds of submissions.

While earning an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and getting her own art career off the ground, Yess came to Trenton and served on the boards of the Trenton Arts Commission and the Mercer County Cultural & Heritage Commission, and as Executive Director of Artworks. She pitched the idea of an open to then Ellarslie Director Ben Whitmire. “It seemed like a good idea to show more artists, to show what the museum could do, and to showcase what a great place the city is,” she recounts. In the early days, artists had to submit slides, “and there was no social media – we had to get publicity in newspapers and on radio,” but the idea took off and the Ellarslie Open celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

Yess has also been a leader for TAWA (Trenton Artists Workshop Association), this year celebrating its 45th anniversary with an exhibition at Ellarslie. TAWA has held meetings, workshops, and artist talks at Ellarslie, as well as many exhibitions. It was through TAWA that Yess met her husband, artist Dave Orban.

Among the best memories, for Yess, are the people: the artists, the volunteers, and the wild and crazy times they had. And she is pleased to see that what she started, so many years ago, has become a great success. “It’s wonderful to see the money they give as prizes.”

Yess, too, has unending praise for Perkes. “Joan has done a great job getting everyone to jump in. She’s energetic, inquisitive, has a lot of ideas, and is persistent.”

If there’s a face of Ellarslie, it would belong to Carol Hill. Hers is the one people see when they come to the many exhibitions and events. It is often joked that Hill lives at the museum.

Known as a jack-of-all-trades – there isn’t really anything that Hill doesn’t feel called upon to undertake – she was first invited to join the board by Molly Merlino, who had a knack for knowing whom to recruit.

Before coming to Ellarslie, Hill taught art at South Hunterdon High School for 10 years, then started an advertising agency and later a printing company. She describes her involvement with the arts as an obsession. Long ago she gave up her own art making, preferring instead to take on the mantle of making others artwork look good. When asked what draws her to the museum every day, she replies, simply, “I enjoy being here. I don’t count the hours. I see a project that needs to be done.”

Along with Stetson, Hill managed the Ellarslie Open for eight years. She continues to do the graphics and labels for exhibitions, climbs ladders to adhere the vinyl lettering or make necessary adjustments, wields tools to reconfigure the wire of large paintings so it will hang just right. And she does all that not for any praise or reward, just because it needs to be done. She has recently prepared a timeline for the Ellarslie Open. 

The rewards for Hill, too, are the connections – the dinners associated with exhibitions, and working with colleagues to create elegance for various events. “I’m not a fan of meetings but it’s the only way to get things done,” she says. As for meetings on Zoom, “people have to be here to have passion.”

Hill is also responsible for the magnificent gardens that entice visitors with intoxicating scents at the front of the museum. Or, as she puts it, “For 20 years I’ve been pulling the same darn weeds.” She brought plants from her own garden, from her mother’s garden, even her daughter’s garden. Hill credits Molly Merlino with starting the garden, and she says she maintains it “because I like to see a neat garden.”

In the end, Hill says the work she does at Ellarslie “is the best job I ever had that I didn’t get paid for. I grew up in this park.”

Among the other honorees are Betty Holland, who was a major supporter of the Trenton Museum Society and Trenton City Museum in their earliest years (and still is), and who was First Lady to the late Honorable Arthur J. Holland, Mayor of Trenton and namesake of the Holland Gallery; James Seibert, who made a major donation of Trenton artifacts to get the Collection started; Rosalie Dietz, who urged Mayor Arthur Holland to establish an art and history museum in the Cadwalader Park mansion house; David Goldberg, who wrote the Trenton Potteries books; Molly Merlino, who established the museum shop; and archaeologist Brenda Springsted, who shared her knowledge about the people and factories involved with the Trenton potteries.

Brian Hill, who served as director of the museum for 12 years, will serve as emcee of the gala.

Asked why people give so much of themselves to the Trenton Museum Society, Stetson doesn’t hesitate. “It’s the people, and the chance to make a difference to the city of Trenton and the surrounding areas. What we do matters.”