Exhibiting Greatness
Philadelphia-area museums evolve with new ways to open the mind and touch the heart.
by Debra Wallace

As you step into the hallowed halls of the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, you get the feeling of entering a rarefied space similar to that of a church, a synagogue, or a shrine: historic, revered, vital.

Founded by Charles Knox Smith, the late industrialist who made his fortune in the mining industry, the Woodmere is known for its high ceilings, vast galleries, and other offerings spread across six majestic acres near the border delineating city from suburbs. It’s a place where visitors can experience the glory of art, both indoors and out. Guests who stroll the grounds enjoy the intersection of nature and sculpture; it’s an immersive experience, particularly in spring and summer.
The Woodmere takes particular pride in showcasing the art and artists of Philadelphia. To use the words of Director and CEO William Valerio, Ph.D., the museum engages visitors with “the art that was made in their own neighborhoods.”
What distinguishes Woodmere from most other museums, he adds, “is the deep dive into Philadelphia as an English city of the Enlightenment Era, a city of the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration, a green city of incredible parks, a diverse city, a city where scientific inquiry is baked into our DNA, and a newspaper and printing city. All of this is reflected in the art that’s been made here over time.
“Museums have experienced a major evolution over the years,” he continues, “and have become integrated more deeply into their communities. Like most museums today, Woodmere has become a social place.”
The Woodmere has evolved largely out of necessity. And the evolution continues.
Recently the Woodmere announced the acquisition of a nearby building and has raised $22 million of its $27 million goal to develop spacious galleries for its permanent collection. The building will include dedicated space for a children’s classroom/workshop to complement the adult studio at the main building. In addition, the acquisition gives the Woodmere an additional four acres of land for outdoor sculpture to be curated in the context of nature and the environmental features of the grounds.

Renovations to the building are well underway. When completed, the Frances M. Maguire Hall for Art and Education will allow the museum staff to take numerous works of art out of storage and place them on public display. Maguire Hall is on schedule to open its doors in May 2025.
Adds Valerio, “With our expansion into Maguire Hall, we will be able to showcase our collection as never before and boost the visibility of Philadelphia’s unique contributions to American art and culture.”
The Woodmere’s offerings include “Tuesday Nights at the Movies,” “Friday Night Jazz,” and classical music concerts, among others. Such a wide range of offerings attracts families, singles, dating couples, school groups—in other words, just about everyone.
“We try to make Woodmere, which was once someone’s home, a very welcoming experience for everyone,” Valerio says.
Current exhibits include artwork produced by students who attend Philadelphia area schools and studios, featured in the Helen Millard Children’s Gallery. Recently, the “Layer Up!” exhibition through the Prints Link Philadelphia collaboration displayed the printmaking creations of student artists from Abington Friends School, Abington Senior High School, Ellwood Elementary School, and Esperanza Academy Charter School.
Another major part of the Woodmere’s history is a focus on celebrating and showcasing contemporary women artists. An exhibit running through August 25, “Through Her Eyes: Women Artists from Woodmere’s Collection,” is part of (re)FOCUS, a citywide festival now celebrating its 50th anniversary. The show, on view in the museum’s Stairwell Gallery, features works of art by the likes of Cecilia Beaux, Susette Inloes Schultz Keast, and Alice Kent Stoddard.
Another exhibits showcases the work of Henry Bermudez, a Venezuela-born artist now based in Philadelphia. The exhibition, which is on display until May 19, is the most extensive exploration of Bermudez’s art to date; it chronicles the artist’s experience since arriving in Philadelphia as an immigrant. He sought asylum in 2003, after the political establishment in Venezuela decided his art expressed ideas that undermined the regime’s authoritarian objectives.
“An effective museum inspires people and provides an environment of beauty that lifts the soul and helps people be creative in their own lives,” Valerio says. “That is the gift of art, being inspired by one another and sharing the human experience.”
Depth and Breadth
To visit the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown is to spend time in “the heart and soul of the community,” according to Executive Director Anne Corso. Named for one of Bucks County’s most beloved writers, the Michener collects, preserves, interprets, and exhibits American art, and promotes the Delaware River Valley region’s rich cultural heritage. Naturally, the museum has a particular focus on Bucks County; it is celebrated for its collection of works by Pennsylvania impressionists.

Corso, the former executive director of the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, describes the Michener as “a hub of activities.” Its robust offerings include sold-out jazz nights, programs for people of varying abilities, lectures and scholarly programs, and summer camps. Corso appreciates the diversity of exhibitions, such as the design and fashion of textile maker Ethel Wallace. She believes showcasing the works of a wide swath of artists makes the Michener “a fabulous center for emerging arts in the Delaware Valley.”
One noteworthy exhibit being offered through mid-October is entitled “George R. Anthonisen: Meditations on the Human Condition.” Celebrating the artist’s 65 years as a figurative sculptor, the exhibition focuses on his thoughtful and haunting “visual dialogues,” primarily in bronze, that investigate humanity’s propensity to both create and destroy. Born in Boston, Anthonisen has been living and working in Bucks County since the early 1970s.
The museum’s educational programs and other offerings are designed to promote a lifelong appreciation and celebration of the arts. While its exhibitions are meant to be both “thought-provoking and entertaining,” as Corso says, the grounds serve as much more than an artistic center.
“We have people who are now in their mid-30s who grew up coming here,” she adds. “Their parents sent them [here] for summer camp, they come back for college internships, and sometimes those same young people have their weddings here.
“We are truly a museum that offers so much for a wide variety of different groups of people,” she continues. “We strive to be the place that our community thinks of not just for art, but as a place to go after work and school.”
She also cites a new initiative called Access for All, a grant-funded program through the Art Bridges Foundation. The program enables the museum to offer free admission on the second Sunday of the month as a way to attract more families and people interested in art. The Art Bridges funding has also facilitated the development of Art After Dark on the first Thursday of the month. With special programs and extended hours until 8 p.m., the program creates opportunities for people to engage and interact with art as a backdrop.
One Art After Dark program to look forward to is “Practicing Her Profession: Mary Cassatt at Work” slated for the evening of Thursday, June 6. Cassatt, who was born in western Pennsylvania and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, spent much of her adult life in France. Known for her perceptive depictions of women and children, Cassatt is now celebrated as a contemporary of fellow French impressionists Monet and Renoir.  
Community museums like the Michener and the Woodmere have gone to great lengths to evolve with a rapidly changing world. As a result, they continue to find new ways to satisfy existing audiences, as well as broaden their offerings to widen their reach.
“The challenges are to find ways to stay fresh and relevant amid the changing technologies and entertainment, and also be able to keep our finger on the pulse of the changing needs of our audience,” Corso says. “The wonderful legacy of our museum and its incredible roster of exhibitions is that we are hosting exhibitions that are everything from impressionist paintings to contemporary artists. … There is so much depth and breadth to our works of art and our program.”
From special events and after-hours programs, to exhibitions designed to foster dialog, museums have become bastions of culture that serve many purposes, be it inspiring guests or challenging their perceptions of the world around them. As Corso puts it, “We are a place where people can find something of interest.”


Quite a Collection
The Philadelphia area is known for its spectacular art museums and other cultural outposts. Besides the Woodmere (woodmereartmuseum.org) and the Michener (michenerartmuseum.org), the likes of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, the Mütter Museum, and the National Constitution Center lure in the masses. Following are a few others to enjoy on the road less traveled.
Brandywine Museum of Art
Chadds Ford
Delaware Art Museum
Wilmington, Delaware
Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
Spring Garden
Frazetta Art Museum
East Stroudsburg
Grounds for Sculpture
Hamilton, New Jersey
John James Audubon Center
The John Updike Childhood Home
Shillington (near Reading)
Pearl S. Buck House
The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Rittenhouse Square
Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center
West Fairmount Park
Photo by Alison Dunlap
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life, April 2024