Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey
November 15, 2019–May 10, 2020
Opening Reception November 14 at 5:30pm
Exhibit Support Provided By:
Liza & Schuyler Morehouse
Lisa & Michael Ullmann
Rago Arts & Auction Center
Kalkin Family Foundation
This exhibition was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
Morven Museum & Garden received a project grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.
New Jersey might not conjure up images of Utopia for most people. However, in the 1930s, town developer Benjamin Brown envisioned farmland in Monmouth County as an idyllic location for a utopian community. Populated by Jewish immigrants, this community provided a sharp contrast to crowded city conditions. Roosevelt, NJ is a rural hamlet easily missed if you blink and yet its history continues to resonate, due in large part to the arts and culture created by its notable residents.
This November, Morven will open its newest exhibition Searching for Utopia: Roosevelt, NJ. The first of its kind, this show will examine the history of Roosevelt, from its early days as an antidote to the Great Depression to a twenty-first century arts community.
Working with the New Deal Resettlement Administration, Brown, a Russian immigrant who had organized other Jewish agricultural cooperatives in the U.S., established the town, originally named Jersey Homesteads, in 1937. It was a place where Jewish garment workers could escape city tenements to breath fresh air, farm the land, and operate a cooperatively-owned garment factory and shop.
Jersey Homesteads’ flat-roofed buildings, designed by architect Alfred Kastner with assistance from Louis Kahn, were built on half-acre lots that backed onto communal green spaces and woods. The emphasis on nature was inspired by the “Garden City” movement in which modern cities were designed around a central park. After the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, the town was renamed in his honor.
At the heart of Roosevelt’s story is a mural by Ben Shahn. Recognized for his work with Diego Rivera on New York’s Rockefeller Center mural, Shahn was invited by the Works Progress Administration to create a fresco in Jersey Homesteads. Produced in 1936-37 with his partner, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, the mural recounts the journey of many town inhabitants from Eastern Europe to the tenements of New York and ultimately the greener pastures of New Jersey. The mural includes noteworthy immigrants like Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Raphael Soyer, and Albert Einstein (who gave the project his political and moral support).
The cooperative living experiment did not succeed, but when Ben and Bernarda made Roosevelt their home, many other artists, writers, and musicians followed, leading to Roosevelt’s reputation as an artists’ colony. Included in this exhibition are works by Jacob Landau, Gregorio Prestopino, Liz Dauber, Louise and Edwin Rosskam, Sol Libsohn, David Stone Martin and his son, Stefan Martin, Robert Mueller, and others. In 1986, Bernarda Bryson Shahn and Jacob Landau started the Roosevelt Arts Project, an artists’ collective which premieres new works by local playwrights, painters, potters, folk singers, poets, and composers, as well as experimental collaborations.
Today, nestled in preserved farmland and woods, Roosevelt is surrounded by a greenbelt that includes the Assunpink Wildlife Refuge. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the only town in the state to be included in its entirety. Roosevelt has endured and thrived, if not as a cooperative, then as a singularly close-knit and artistic community.