Staten Island Home to 17th Century Treasures
Not every child discovers a military uniform button dated back to the Revolutionary War on the ground, but 61-year-old George Way did, on a trip to Valley Forge. He was eight, and it was his very first find. Seven years later Way made yet another discovery: an antique-looking chair in the basement of the church he attended. Intrigued by his find, he convinced the minister to sell the chair to him for $50. Way strapped the chair to his back and walked home with the purchase, knowing that he was destined to be a collector.
In the years to come, Way made weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was during his time there that he developed a keen eye for 17th-century English furniture, and later, a unique appreciation for the 17th-century Dutch Masters, like Rembrandt and Jan Steen.
Today his collection, housed in his one-bedroom apartment on Staten Island, consists of the artwork of many of the same Dutch Masters he came to love. According to Alliance for The Arts, the “George Way Collection is gathered mostly from local sources, considered by experts to be the largest collection of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and English furniture outside the UK.”
“It takes passion, commitment, and drive to put together a collection worthy of any museum. You always learn through mistakes and you get to handle period objects and study them - not like in school where you only see pictures of the same thing from the same museums and nothing new. Hands on!” says Way.
Way was born and raised on Staten Island, and still lives there. He worked odd jobs after high school, until he found a secure union job at a local supermarket. He retired last year, at age 60. Way would cook at the supermarket by day and collect art by night. A rent controlled apartment, unionized job, and no family to support, were all factors that allowed Way to incur the funds to collect art.
Another factor that allowed Way collect was his eye for hidden treasures. Way avoided the conventional auction houses where bidding was required. Instead, he acquired his collection from flea markets, a string of antique shops that used to occupy the West Village, among other places. Over the years, Way’s modest Staten Island one-bedroom home turned into a live-in gallery.
“George is an extraordinary collector who has the energy and the passion to find unusual and very special things in the least likely places. He is determined and talented. The benefit of having his collection in a museum is that you wind up with a very personal collection that tells you to appreciate some of the things that are around us, that he finds in flee markets and other places that we walk by quite often, but he has a talent for that,” says Peter M. Kenny, Curator of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anyone who enters Way’s house is invited to handle the paintings, to examine them in different lighting, or hold the art work. Nearly every surface of his apartment is covered with art. A portrait of a bright-eyed 17th-century youth is stowed away in his closet, several pieces are hung in his bathroom. When Way brushes his teeth in the morning, an ornately dressed infant stares down at him from the painting behind him in the mirror’s reflection. To reduce the effects of moisture, he simply runs cold water over the shower wall after showering to reduce the steam.
Way always dreamed of having his own museum. According to Way, Staten Island burrough James P. Molinaro visited his apartment several years ago. “He was very impressed, indeed,” says Way. “Shortly after his visit, he announced in [the Staten Island Advance] that I would be receiving a 500,000 dollar grant to start restoration at [Snug Harbor Cultural Center.]” The grant would go toward restoring a wing at the cultural center that will eventually house Way’s collection.
“It has been three years since, and during this time things changed only for the better. Originally my collection was going in a building already occupied,” continued Way. “About five month’s ago I was told that those plans fell through. During this time I showed an interest in a building standing free that I have always felt would be ideal for the collection. It is in an area of the harbor that you cannot miss.”
While Way is happy that his art will be seen by the general public, he acknowledges that the personal experience that comes with having art in the home might be lost. There will be no more “bathroom art” in the new building. Nonetheless, Way is convinced that the impending move is a positive one. He wants art students to be able to handle the art there, because he values this tactile approach. “I want to help teach students the right way, hands on, Way said. Until then, his art will remain him at home, where he can admire it daily.
“People think that everything’s been discovered, that all of the artwork’s been found and only exists in museums,” says Way. “But there’s so much more still out there. There’s always something to be found."