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NEWS ÀRCHIVE

Art | School district inventories its scattered art collection
July 25, 2004

By Edward J. Sozanski

Inquirer Columnist


Some art collections grow slowly and randomly, like glaciers. Pictures pile up, one by one, over decades, like snowflakes falling in the mountains, until one day a recognizable mass can be characterized, in the broadest sense, as a "collection."

The Philadelphia School District has just inventoried such an aggregation of art, acquired mostly through gifts over a century, scattered through its central administrative offices and many, but not all, of the more than 200 schools in its jurisdiction.

Who gave all this art, and why? Whatever records exist would be in the individual schools, said chief of staff Natalye Paquin, and no one yet has begun to search for this information.

The Chicago art consultant who compiled a working catalog of the roughly 1,200 objects - not all of them definitively "art" - suggested that they might be worth $30 million. That's not a formal appraisal but an insurance estimate, district officials said.

Perusal of the complete inventory, which consists of a photograph and description of each work, doesn't appear to substantiate such an optimistic valuation. Even professional appraisals can vary widely. In any case, chief of staff Paquin said the district doesn't plan to sell anything, but wants to develop a plan to use the collection educationally.

But how? This is an amorphous mass of material. It consists of paintings, sculptures, works on paper such as watercolors, prints and photographs; panels of stained glass; a few ceramic vases; furniture; tall clocks; and even an antique boiler gauge.

From this conglomeration emerge a few nuggets of real distinction:

Two portraits by Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia's most esteemed painter, one full-length and one half-length. Both are of school principals. Among the earliest pieces in the collection, which spans a century and a quarter, they date from 1875 and 1890. (For security reasons, the school district has asked that individual artworks not be identified with specific schools.)

A larger-than-life statue of Abraham Lincoln, in plaster painted to resemble bronze, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most important American sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Paintings by three important African American artists: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Allan Randall Freelon, and Dox Thrash.

The Tanner painting of a horse and two dogs, dated 1930 in the inventory, is more likely the 1891 picture of the same title and composition included in a Tanner retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1991. It's more consistent with Tanner's interests as a relatively young artist studying in Paris than with those of an artist in his early 70s.

Freelon, a Philadelphia painter who became prominent during the period of the Harlem Renaissance, is represented by two large, shimmering seascapes painted in the impressionist technique. These are among the most impressive paintings in the collection.

Thrash, known in Philadelphia as an innovative printmaker, has a small painting in the collection, a neighborhood scene. The Art Museum presented a Thrash retrospective in fall 2001.

A large lithograph and a bronze sculpture by Barbara Chase-Riboud, a Philadelphia native and internationally known artist, novelist and poet. The sculpture is named after the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

A large group of pictures, mostly landscapes, by a dozen painters associated with New Hope, Bucks County and Pennsylvania impressionism. This is the most coherent segment of the collection, comprising perhaps 50 paintings and watercolors.

The district owns 17 oils and six watercolors by one artist in this group, Walter Emerson Baum, who founded an art school in Allentown. Seven schools have paintings by Baum and five have landscapes by Antonio Martino, another artist associated with Pennsylvania impressionism.

Other significant figures in this group include Edward Redfield, Walter Elmer Schofield, John Folinsbee, Harry Leith-Ross, Arthur Meltzer, Henry B. Snell, and Paulette Van Roekens.

Ben Solowey and Alice Kent Stoddard, who also can be considered part of the impressionist cadre, are in the collection too, but with portraits, not landscapes.

Portraits - of school principals, officials, and even of estimable personages for whom schools are named - constitute a large chunk of the 1,200 works. Most of these are mainly of historical rather than aesthetic interest.

Many artists in the collection are unidentified; of those who are, most come from the Philadelphia region. National names pop up occasionally, such as the Bostonian Joseph De Camp, one of the group called Ten American Painters, and the optical artist Victor Vasarely.

Prominent local figures include Roswell Weidner, Seymour Remenick, Paul Gorka, Margaretta Gilboy, and Jose A. Sebourne. Generally, the collection is concentrated in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, with relatively little work after the mid-1960s.

It's scattered throughout the district like islands in an archipelago. Several schools house substantial subcollections, while many others have only a few works and some have none.

The school district is trying to decide what to do with this art. Paquin said she planned to assemble a committee chosen from the community to advise the district on how to use the collection to best advantage and how to care for it.

One possibility would be to gather some of the most significant works into a permanent gallery situation where they would be accessible to the public as well as to students and could be kept in museum-level security.

The impressionist paintings would make a splendid permanent educational display, as would the work by the collection's many African Americans, from Tanner to Sebourne. Putting pieces of the collection in a central location might create problems, though, if parents and staff objected to having work removed from their schools.

Whatever the outcome, the district's collection contains the prospect of educational innovation and wider public exposure. If the district isn't stampeded into premature action, it should be able to figure out how to make the best use of this vast grandma's attic of art.

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