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New Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne d'Harnoncourt, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, announced in October, 2002 that the Museum has established a center for the study of American art with the support of a $5 million endowment gift to its current capital campaign from Robert L. McNeil, Jr. The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will promote the exploration of the artistic and cultural heritage of the United States in general and the Philadelphia area in particular, through lectures, symposia, programs, fellowships, publications, research and collaboration. Dr. Kathleen Foster, who was recently appointed as Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art, will serve as Director of the new Center.

Dr. Foster will oversee and coordinate a range of interdisciplinary projects that will utilize the resources and strengths of several Museum departments including American Art; Prints, Drawings and Photographs; Modern and Contemporary Art; and Costume and Textiles. Also envisioned are collaborations with other academic and cultural institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "The Center for American Art offers a wonderful opportunity for investigating and communicating the excellence and diversity of our national heritage, especially as it has been shaped by Philadelphia's great tradition in the arts," Dr. Foster said.

The $5 million gift will also support a new curatorial position with expertise in contemporary American decorative arts and crafts, continuing the Museum's longstanding commitment to this important field. H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., Museum Trustee and Chairman of the American Art Committee remarked: "Bob McNeil has been a friend and mentor to me for many years. I am deeply grateful to him for the depth of knowledge he shares and to the commitment he has made to the field of American art. I am very excited about the new Center and its mission. Philadelphia and this great Museum have always been a vital force in American art, and the Center will help promote exchange among the leading scholars, curators, and collectors of American art. This will allow the Museum to extend the reach of its distinguished collections, which are matchless in their representation of Philadelphia's artistic achievement over three centuries, from its beginnings as a settlement at the meeting of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers to its important position as a vital city today."

The advisory board for the Center for American Art will include John Wilmerding, Sarofim Professor in American Art at Princeton University; David Brownlee, Chairman of the History of Art Department, University of Pennsylvania; Cheryl Leibold, Archivist at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Danielle Rice, Associate Director for Program, Philadelphia Museum of Art, scholars from universities and museums in the tri-state area and other members of the Museum's curatorial staff and professional staff.

The first program of the new Center for American Art will be the co-sponsorship of a lecture series with the History of Art Department of the University of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Colloquium on American Art will debut December 10, 2002, at the University of Pennsylvania with a lecture by Professor Michael Leja, Professor of Art History, University of Delaware, followed by lectures taking place alternately at the Museum and the university.

The Center is also planning a symposium on the legacy of Fiske Kimball, the eminent scholar, architect and committed preservationist who served as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1925 to 1955. Kimball was instrumental in the preservation of Monticello and the historic houses of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, and advised on the development of Colonial Williamsburg. As the director who oversaw the first 30 years of acquisitions and gallery installations in the new Museum building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Kimball shaped the present strengths of the American collections. His significant acquisitions include the Powel Parlor (gallery 287), whose walls, ceiling and fireplace came from the house at 244 South Third Street that belonged Samuel Powel, the Revolutionary War patriot who became Mayor of Philadelphia. Kimball also acquired the Pennsylvania German kitchen, from a miller's rubble stone house built about 1752 in Milbach, Lebanon County, complete with furnishings that together reflect the transplantation of Germanic decorative traditions in America (gallery 285). Kimball's purchase in 1945 of Charles Willson Peale's celebrated tromp l'oeil portrait of his sons, The Staircase Group, was the first great work by Peale to enter the Museum and its incomparable collection of the works of Thomas Eakins was the direct result of Kimball's persuasive discussions with Susan Macdowell Eakins, the artist's widow.

Editor's note: Resource Library Magazine has invited the Center to make available to the public abridgements of the lectures or transcribed whole lectures from the lecture series, relating to representational American art history, through this publication.


About the American Art Collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The importance of the Philadelphia region as a center for artistic production for over 300 years and the strength of history and tradition in the city assured the Museum's strong commitment to American arts. Today the collection, which continues to grow rapidly, is recognized as one of the finest public holdings of American art in existence, with major examples of decorative arts, painting, and sculpture that have been acquired steadily since the Museum's founding in 1876. Outstanding areas of the collection are 18th and 19fh century Philadelphia furniture and silver, assembled primarily by gifts from R. Wistar Harvey, Mr. And Mrs. Walter Jeffords, H. Richard Dietrich, Robert L. McNeil, Jr., and members of other Philadelphia families. The rural Pennsylvania collections, which began at the turn of the century with the enthusiasm of curator and director Edwin AtLee Barber and patrons John T. Morris and Mrs. William Frishmuth, grew dramatically with large gifts from J. Stogdell Stokes, Titus C. Geesey, and most recently the heirs of Ralph Beaver Strassberger. Areas of strength include collections of Pennsylvania German furniture, textiles, fraktur, and toys.

Other decorative arts of note are the unmatched collection of porcelain objects, design books, papers, tools relating to the short-lived manufacturing venture of William and Thomas Tucker of Philadelphia in the 1820s and 1830s, given by their descendent Anne Tucker Earp in 1951, the 500 examples of American glass and their European prototypes given by George Horace Lorimer in 1938; and the Shaker furniture and objects given by Mr. and Mrs. Julius Zieget.

Mrs. William Wilstach's bequest of paintings in 1893 included works that constituted the beginning of the American paintings collection. Among the first purchases with the fund she established were pictures by J. A. M. Whistler and George Inness in 1895, and in 1889, The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first painting by the young African American artist to enter a comprehensive museum collection in the United States. The Museum is fortunate to house a remarkable group of portraits by the Philadelphia artist and scientist Charles Willson Peale, including The Staircase Group and Rachel Weeping and the five family portraits in the Cadwalader Collection, which, together with their related furniture, represent a unique commission in 18th century America. The works of the pioneering 19th-century Philadelphia sculptor William Rush has its most extensive representation in the Museum as a result of his public commissions to decorate buildings in the city. By far the most notable component of the 19th-century paintings holdings, which also include four splendid works by Winslow Homer, is the Thomas Eakins Collection, given by the artist's widow, Susan Macdowell Eakins, and their friend Mary Adeline Williams in 1929 and 1930. Encompassing paintings, sculpture, sketches, and archival material, this formed the nucleus for the largest collection of the artist's work. The American art collections at the Museum are also strong in works by self-taught artists, the Pennsylvania Impressionists, and early modernists, including the artists in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1981, the Women's Committee of the Museum began to contribute funds from the proceeds of the annual craft show for the purchase of contemporary crafts, which would bring the historically strong collection of decorative arts up to the present day. These objects provide a focus for the growing collections of contemporary craft art, which includes the Museum's most recent acquisition of period architectural elements, the library fireplace and doorway, acquired together with a wood-paneled music room, designed and carved in 1936 and 1937 by Wharton Esherick for the Curtis Bok house in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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