by Pete Mazzaccaro
William Valerio, director of the Woodmere Art Museum, and Charles Croce, director of the Philadelphia History Museum (formerly the Atwater Kent Museum), have known each other a long time. Both worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and would get together to chat every so often since they left the museum, sometimes planned, sometimes by chance.
During a recent conversation, it occurred to both men that their organizations might be better off if they worked together.
“At one point we were doing a Violet Oakley show that had to do with her portraits of the delegates to the first UN meeting at the same time Charles was organizing an exhibit around Philadelphia’s role in the formation of the United Nation,” Valerio said in a recent interview at the Woodmere. “We thought, ‘Why didn’t we think of partnering a year and a half ago?’ At the time, the wheels were already in motion so we didn’t have the opportunity to collaborate. But we thought, ‘What if we consider these two collections as one large exhibition?’”
So the two began to plan a strategic alliance. Both museums could partner on larger exhibitions that would have components at booth locations – the Woodmere in Chestnut Hill and the Philadelphia History Museum at Seventh and Market streets in Center City. This year they received funding from the William Penn Foundation to explore the partnership for 18 months, at the end of which they will host a joint exhibit.
One of the main reasons both Valerio and Croce, and now the William Penn Foundation, believe a partnership between the museums could work is the similarity in mission. The Woodmere is a regional art museum that has focused its mission on telling Philadelphia stories in its exhibits. The Philadelphia History Museum is a collection of than 100,000 items – costumes, documents, photos and furniture — from the present day all the way back to the wampum belt given to William Penn by the Delaware tribe in 1682. All of it is a part of Philadelphia history.
“It’s the only story we tell,” Croce said. “Everything has to have a Philadelphia centric reason for being included.”
“We both have collections that are great assets of the City of Philadelphia,” Valerio said. “What can we do to be even more compelling and more competitive in the philanthropic environment? This idea makes us stronger as not-for-profit entities.”
Both Valerio and Croce were careful to be sure that the partnership agreement was not a merger. Both directors said that their respective institutions would persist. Though both admitted there were some aspects of both institutions where shared resources and staff might be in the future.
What’s even more likely, Valerio and Croce said, is that the two organizations would share solutions to problems like the fact that both are currently looking to expand their collection storage space. Instead of each museum building or purchasing its own facility, they can build one and share it.
One common point of sharing that began with the funding from William Penn was that Woodmere’s architect Matthew Baird, who began working on Woodmere’s master plan last year, has been hired to consult both organizations on where to find further efficiencies.
Furthermore, both directors said that the two organizations were often chasing down similar grants, donors and even board members. A coordinated effort just makes sense.
Yet, no matter the coordination, Valerio said he was certain Woodmere would not be going anywhere.
“Both of our boards know that there are institutional cultural elements to our institutions that we’re not willing to give up,” he said. “We’re exploring this partnership, Will there be change? Yes. Will it be a change that causes Woodmere to sacrifice something that is essential to its history? No. Our boards are very cognizant of that.”
The museums are already planning their first joint exhibit for next year. The subject is still in development, and so both directors declined to share specific details, but each said they expected the sum of the collections – merging art and history – would be something that no other institution in the region offers.
A model where a history institution and an art institution share assets would be a unique situation,” Croce said. “If it became something deeper, I think other organizations would look to it and say, ‘Aha, We should be doing that.’ We’re going to see where it goes. I’m excited to have the opportunity to do this.”