Westmoreland museum embraces spontaneity in its temporary space

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Sometimes treasure hides in plain sight.

Many recognize the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg as a regional attribute with a permanent collection and changing exhibitions that champion contemporary local artists as well as historic artworks.

But few realize that it also has international prominence, in part due to the critically lauded “Born of Fire: The Valley of Work” exhibition that traveled to Europe between 2007 and 2010. It featured the museum’s prize industrial artworks and was shown in cities that included Oberhausen in the Ruhr River Valley of western Germany and Chemnitz in eastern Germany, according to Barbara Jones, the museum's chief curator.

“Born of Fire” returned to the Rhineland Industrial Museum in Oberhausen as a major component of the exhibition “Feuerlander, Regions of Vulcan” in 2010 when Essen, also a part of the Ruhr region, was designated European Capital of Culture. “Visitors came from France, Belgium, Italy and Germany,” Ms. Jones wrote in an email.

The Westmoreland regularly draws visitors who are interested in a wide range of Americana, collectors who recognize the importance of heritage works, and scholars who continue to make discoveries about the American character through artists who visually represented their times.

Interest has risen particularly among collectors of southwestern Pennsylvania artists, such as those of the Scalp Level School, Ms. Jones wrote. The Scalp Level School refers to a group of artists who in the 19th century painted Appalachian landscapes in the area of Scalp Level in Cambria County.

“But we are known to other institutions and collectors for specific works by specific American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and John Francis," Ms. Jones wrote. "Our still life, ‘Fruit and Wine,' of 1858, was selected by the Art Institute of Chicago for their exhibition ‘Art and Appetite, American Painting, Culture and Cuisine,’ over their own John Francis still life.”

Sometimes family members of artists represented in the collection visit. Those have included relatives of Otto Kuhler (1894-1976), who visited in the fall from Colorado. “They didn’t know about his industrial work, only the work he had done when he moved out west. It was a revelation to them,” Ms. Jones wrote. Other recent visitors were the great-grandson of Scalp Level School leader George Hetzel (1826-1899) and his family, including his mother, George Hetzel’s granddaughter-in-law.

The artist files that scholars and collectors come to look through are still accessible, but some collection favorites are traveling while the museum building is being renovated and expanded. The Westmoreland expects to debut its North Main Street location in Greensburg in spring 2015. In the meantime, the museum is in a temporary location dubbed the Westmoreland @rt 30. The address is 4764 Route 30 in Unity, just east of Greensburg. Locals will recognize that as the former Stickley Audi & Co. furniture store across from the former Mountain View Inn.

The 30,000-square-foot building is about as large as the museum, but the spatial layout is quite different and includes large open areas. That, and the fact that the staff isn’t operating out of its home base, have inspired new ways of approaching temporary exhibitions and programs that invite spontaneity. The museum calendar lists "Pop-Up" exhibitions, workshops and salons at what might be thought of as a pop-up museum. 

An added bonus is that the temporary spot along the scenic, historic Lincoln Highway has drawn a new audience to the museum.

“We have had many people visit the shop and the galleries who say they had not been to the museum building in downtown Greensburg,” said Christie Black, then-director of marketing and public relations for the museum. The staff is thrilled about it, she said, because one of their hopes for the temporary move was “to attract a new audience from our current location to take along with us back to the museum.”

Attendance numbers were up from the previous year for museum events such as the Holiday Marketplace and Art on Tap, and the shop saw record sales during the holiday season.

Registration for the first four pop-up studios were at capacity or above. The workshops, usually but not always led by a currently exhibiting artist, are geared to adults, with time built in for socializing with snacks, wine and beer.

The pop-up exhibitions, a novel approach that began shortly before the move from the museum building, have been popular and have provided a unique opportunity to local artists for a museum show. One advantage is that a substantial body of work is exhibited rather than the one or two pieces usually selected by a juror for a group exhibition such as the museum biennials.

A call was put out for proposals, and artists were selected from those submissions. One to three artists show artworks in a variety of media including photography, sculpture, installation, drawing and painting. The current exhibition is “But I am the Fire” — laser-cut, birch panel paintings and site-specific multimedia installations by Laurie Trok. The exhibition continues through Feb. 2, and the artist will lead a salon discussion at 6 p.m. next Thursday.

The first floor of Westmoreland @rt30 holds the gift shop, studio, pop-up exhibition space, lounge area, snack area and the “War Room,” an exhibition about the museum project that includes a model, plans and samples of interior and exterior building materials.

The second floor holds the permanent collection galleries, staff offices and the vault where non-exhibited collection objects are stored. A large, roughly finished lower level has been used for social functions such as the annual Westmoreland Society meeting. It’s also where the thrice-weekly Yoga in the Museum classes meet.

Regular visitors may miss certain collection favorites and wonder why they aren’t on view. The reason is that the museum is flaunting its gems across the country while it operates off-campus, using the collection items as ambassadors throughout the U.S. 

Some of the industrial paintings were exhibited last year at the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee. Another selection of works, “From Blasted Trees to Blast Furnaces,” will be at The Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College in Annapolis later this year.

Four venues scheduled “Picturing America,” 56 works that include Mary Cassatt’s “Mother and Two Children,” Samuel Rosenberg’s “God’s Chillun,” Ben Shahn’s “Byzantine Isometric,” Thomas Hovenden’s “Death of Elaine,” George Hetzel’s “On the Conemaugh,” John Sloan’s “Portrait of Mary Regensburg,” Rembrandt Peale’s “Portrait of George Washington” and Milton Avery’s “Arrangement with Plants.”

That exhibition was at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis last year. It will travel this year to the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida; Georgia Museum of Art in Athens; and The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.

The galleries of Westmoreland @rt 30 are open noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The shop is open additional hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Admission is free. The floors are accessible by elevator as well as stairs. For information: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

First Published January 16, 2014 12:00 AM

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