Since 1983, Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens County, New York City, has consistently and powerfully shattered society’s preexisting conceptions about those with mental disabilities. Built in a 40,000 square foot abandoned cafeteria, The Living Museum was created at one of the largest state psychiatric care institutions in the city to treat the patients in a more intrinsic way that would give them a positive sense of identity in a judgement-free setting. Doctor Janos Marton, co-founder and current psychologist/curator at the gallery, asserts that “mental illness and art are a natural combination. Anybody who has a mental breakdown, a psychotic experience, can come out of it and create great works of art.”
My journey to Creedmoor began with a strange phone call to the number posted on the New York State’s Office of Mental Health website, mostly because there was this ghostly, stomach-churning, screeching white noise on the other end — probably a fax machine. The second call went to the correct number, a cheerful female curator at the Living Museum. After giving the necessary information, she ended the conversation with, “Also, don’t forget to behave yourselves. You might get mistaken for a patient” click. Before a last word could get squeezed in, she had hung up. In my mind, this was an unsettling phone call and how my adventure commenced.
A monotonous hour long bus ride on the Q46 led us to our final destination, the Winchester Boulevard stop: Creedmoor. With the bus obstructing my view, I never imagined the massive, rectangular building to stand so boldly amongst the emerald glow of the park across the street. However, as the bus pulled away, there we were, two teenagers, in a seemingly isolated part of Queens, alone with this industrial beige building — alone with its scandals, secrets, ghost stories, lack of security due to budget cuts, and whatever could be housed in that mammoth structure. We were alone with more than 300 acres of nondescript buildings. We were alone with the stigma that these people were inevitably dangerous. We were alone with our questions of where the museum was and the false reality of the never-ending length of the fence around the main building that could lead us to our answers. One, two, three, maybe four, patients brushed past us on the narrow street, each murmuring something to themselves. Slowly, I began to wonder where we were, why we were there, and when the next bus would come to sweep me away from this place.
Finally, as we reached the gaping mouth of the fence, I felt my blood pressure decrease slightly. We were safe, I thought, due to the security booth at the entrance. As my travel companion and I reached the kiosk, the hazy off-white tint on the windows said it all: nobody had touched this place for years. Even worse, the yellowed-newspaper lying on the desk inside was dated back to the early 2000s. Our only superficial sense of safety had vanished a decade ago, because of budget cuts. Here we were again, alone. We could see the doors to the main building, but the copious amount of patient-looking people smoking outside told us that it must be a residential building of sorts, definitely nowhere near the museum. Suddenly, and almost magically, a middle-aged man that looked like he could be a doctor showed up in the parking lot. I was overcome by a feeling of tranquility. This looked like someone we could ask for directions. We called the man over and told him we were going to the Living Museum. He seemed quite informed. It seemed that this was our first “right” move in our sea of “wrongs.” The man told us that a white van would come in a minute and to just “tell the driver where you’re going.” It was beautifully simple compared to our previous feelings of intense stress. The bus pulled up and we thanked the man. Like any “normal” human being, he warned us once to “hurry up or [we’d] miss the bus!” The odd part was that he kept repeating it. Over and over and over. The closer we got to the dated white school bus, the level of agitation in the man’s tone rose. As strange as it seemed, he got us to our bus, something we were incredibly grateful for. We got onto the bus, told the driver where we were heading, sat down, pulled away, looked out the back window, and saw the man from earlier still shouting at us with his fist in the air to “hurry up or [we’d] miss the bus!” We turned around in our seats, as if it were a symbolization of new beginnings, and realized we were on a bus saturated with patients, humming along to an old Adam Lambert song. Either they were more like us than we expected, we were more like them than we expected, or something so trivial could unify people of different backgrounds and crumble implicit biases.
Feeling like a five year old on a road trip, the bus ride seemed to last an eternity — a common theme in this journey. As we pulled up to three unlabeled buildings, the driver told us we arrived. If only he had told us which building it was. There we were again, two teenagers lost on the campus of a psychiatric facility with more than 50 buildings.
Once we got our bearings, we walked into a dark building with small metallic lettering above the doorway, “The Living Museum,” where a patient kindly greeted us and turned on the lights. After stepping over a cat in the hallway as orange as the blood moon, we were immersed in this almost animate, living sense of creativity and ideas. There were vibrant colors blooming from the acrylic-coated canvases lining the walls. There were stories to tell in each piece from painted straitjackets to Superman Jesus being crucified. There were political messages to be made from two chairs labeled, “Sit” and “Wait.” There was this overwhelming feeling of unity, sanctuary, and asylum amongst both the patients and ourselves. Though it was a known fact that Doctor Marton never specifically specified which artists are in-patients and which were out, I would have never believed it until I stepped foot into the enchanting and inspiring gallery known as “The Living Museum.” While there were patients wandering around, they were there for the same reasons we were: to admire the beauty of what Doctor Marton calls “neurodiversity,” which he states, “all artists have [and is] happening in their brains, and if they don’t, I would bet they cheat with drugs and alcohol.”
Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. The Yelp reviews were positive so I went with my 21st Century instinct, called up a friend, and found myself in Queens the next day. Although we both coincidentally overlooked the reviews mentioning the patients walking about the campus and museum, the surprise was pleasant after the initial shock. Whether someone is depressed or schizophrenic, they are still a human being. If they can live without assistance, it is their right to do so, just as it is their right to make art, or express themselves in any outlet. At Creedmoor, the Living Museum is not an art therapy center. It is a studio for artists of all backgrounds to utilize Doctor Marton’s philosophy of confidential work, though he strongly encourages the artist to sign their names and be proud of their creations. Unlike other institutions, this work is not being used against the maker for deep analysis; it is for the sole purpose of rehabilitating the patient and helping them deal with their “inner demons,” as Marton calls it. The Living Museum is a sanctuary for people of all walks of life to find a common ground in an unlikely place. Despite the journey feeling like Alice uncontrollably falling down the rabbit hole, it was worth it each and every bump of the way. I plan on returning soon and encourage those interested in anything from art, visual political statements, or New York City history, to experience a house of art that doubles as a home for artists, with open arms to all.