Janos Marton, Director of The Living Museum
Born in Hungary in 1949, Janos Marton grew up in the shadow of communism and the legacy of the Holocaust. His father, a dissident economist, was taken off to prison for six years on the day his son was born. In the 1960s the Martons received political asylum in Austria and moved to Vienna, where Janos attended high school and studied psychology. He became familiar with the artwork of the psychiatric patients at the Landers Clinic, a state hospital in Maria Gugging in the suburbs of Vienna.
The art program in Gugging had its own building, known as the House of Artists. The painter Jean Dubuffet included the work of several Gugging patients in his collection of Outsider Art or Art Brut. Through Dubuffet, the concept of Art Brut was popularized. It dealt with the nature of individual self-expression, intention and authenticity, exploring the boundaries between artistic creativity and mental illness, and the definitions of art itself.
In 1976, Dr. Marton received a Ph.D. in psychology and in 1980, a M.A. in fine arts at Columbia University. He then went to work as a psychologist at Creedmoor, the largest of five state psychiatric institutions in Queens, New York.
It was certainly more tempting for a young European to try his luck in the New World rather than to take a job at the clinic in Gugging, Austria, where he would have perpetuated the venerable school of thought personified by the Director of the Gugging Museum, the psychiatrist Leo Navratil. But the enormous effort it would take to create what was to become the Living Museum cannot be adequately explained by a young man’s thirst for adventure or by Dr. Marton’s understated description of his generation’s world view: “We were the children of Marx and Coca Cola, rejecting both.”
In 1983, Creedmoor housed about 1,350 patients. It was the year when Dr. Marton invited Bolek Greczynski, a Polish artist known for his work in political art and experimental theater, to join the hospital staff. Together, the two guided the transformation of an abandoned building on the campus known as Building 75 that housed the main kitchen for the Creedmoor patients. They took down the paint peeling off the walls and the layers of fat and dust clouding the windows. Some rooms were inhabited by squirrels, others were locked and inaccessible. Marton and Greczynski had the ability to see through the grime and faded interior of the deserted building and, with time, created an ever-changing space full of art and beauty, the Living Museum.
Mr. Greczynski became the museum’s first director. Dr. Marton took over the post in 1995. Today, around one hundred artists work at the museum regularly. About fifteen percent have been artists all their lives. Some sell their work at commanding prices, and these are featured in shows and often reviewed. The doors of the Living Museum are open to all patients who are residents of Queens, N.Y. and supported by the state system. Some come daily, some once a week. Most are outpatients; fifteen to twenty percent are inpatients. All are under psychiatric guidance and on medication.