Art Museum's 'First Look' show: Acquisitions since 2008

"Camera Obscura Image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, East Entrance in Gallery with a de Chirico Painting," a 2009 print by photographer Abelardo Morell that he donated after the museum assisted him in its making.
"Camera Obscura Image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, East Entrance in Gallery with a de Chirico Painting," a 2009 print by photographer Abelardo Morell that he donated after the museum assisted him in its making. (Gift of the artist in memory of Anne d'Harnoncourt, 2009)
Posted: July 12, 2013

The Philadelphia Museum of Art cedes nothing to Paris. Why should it, when it has what is, in effect, a walking Eiffel Tower - an ensemble created by the great fashion designer Patrick Kelly, shortly before he died of AIDS at 35 in 1990?

Thanks to the largesse of donors Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones, the museum now has Kelly's celebration of the tower's 1989 centennial: an embroidered black synthetic velvet dress with silvery sequins and topped off with, yes, an elegantly elongated Eiffel Tower hat.

When the museum's summer show, "First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia," opens Saturday, Kelly's elaborate chapeau (sans dress) will look out across the Dorrance Gallery and about 125 other works acquired by the museum over the last five years.

But the show of acquisitions, which runs through Sept. 8, hardly ends with the works in that special exhibition gallery. Scattered throughout the museum, in what would be their normal exhibition slots, will be 200 or so more works that also came under the museum's wing since 2008.

These 300-plus works are but a sampling of the roughly 8,500 paintings, prints, photographs, drawings, videos, costumes, textiles, sculptures, and furniture that flowed into the museum's collection during that time.

"I was surprised, but not that surprised, to find that the museum had added more than 8,500 works of art to its collection in the last five years," said Alice Beamesderfer, deputy director for collections and programs, who cocurated the show with Naina Saligram, exhibition assistant in the department of pre-1900 European painting.

Beamesderfer noted that, aside from the items in the Dorrance Gallery, "throughout the museum, any works that have been acquired during that period of time are going to get a special label so visitors can see how they fit in with the collection, how they might have transformed the collection."

Some are already out and on view. For instance, an extremely rare early-16th-century set of man and horse armor has been in the Kretzschmar von Kienbusch Galleries of Arms and Armor since it was acquired in 2009. Nicholas Karabots, a Fort Washington printing and publishing magnate, his wife, Athena, and the Karabots Foundation provided funding for the acquisition, the only complete set of horse armor to come to market in half a century.

Monet's Path on the Island of Saint Martin, Vétheuil (1881), to be on view in Dorrance, is one of four paintings given to the museum by Chara C. Haas and the late John C. Haas, in 2011. The first Monet to enter the collection from the artist's stay at Vétheuil, it is one of four important impressionist works the Haases bestowed in 2011.

The others - a Pissarro, a Sisley, and a Cassatt - are in place elsewhere in the museum, identified for the exhibition by labeling that explains where they came from and why they are significant for the museum.

"First Look" is a "real mix of contemporary things and old things and Asian and European and American," said Beamesderfer. The show also demonstrates the museum's ongoing focus on collecting work by Philadelphia artists and by African Americans (such as Kelly).

Sometimes works seemingly came from nowhere, catching all by surprise.

In 2009, for instance, a collection of contemporary studio glass from all over the world was willed to the museum by Hester Beckman.

"She wasn't on our radar at all," Beamesderfer said. "It wasn't a medium that our craft collection was really strong in, so it was great."

Since the museum has a relatively small amount of money earmarked for acquisitions, said director and chief executive Timothy Rub, donor generosity is the most likely way a work finds its way into the museum's fold.

Some donors are artists: Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss gave the museum a complete set of her I-95 Project photographs following the popular show of the work mounted by the museum in 2012. Likewise, photographer Abelardo Morell gave the museum a print of his Camera Obscura Image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, East Entrance in Gallery with a de Chirico Painting (2009), after the museum assisted him in making the image.

"He just had a great experience here working with us and just decided to give us this print, which as I said is really important because it's the first time he had ever worked in color," Beamesderfer said.

In the case of The Divine Shepherdess, José Campeche y Jordán's late-18th-century portrayal of the Virgin Mary tending her flock, a broad array of donors contributed to shepherd the work into the collection.

The painting by the Puerto Rican artist filled a significant hole in the museum's Latin American collection and was supported by curators and donors associated with the American art department and the department of European art before 1900.

Noted Rub, "It's rare that any more than an average of one in 10 [works] are purchased from the museum's acquisition fund."

Gifts of Art

"First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia" continues through Sept. 8 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Wednesday and Friday till 8:45. Admission: $20; 65 and over, $18; students with ID, $14; 13-18, $14; 12 and under, free. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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