|Art | School
district inventories its scattered art collection
July 25, 2004
By Edward J. Sozanski
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
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
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
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
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
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.