by William Valerio
Growing up in New York, one of my childhood pleasures was going to the city’s many museums. In my child’s mind, museums were like libraries: places where everyone spoke in hushed tones out of respect for the deep thinking that went on as visitors stood and looked deeply at great works of art. One of my earliest memories was silently sitting on a bench at MoMA with my mother and being swallowed up by the energy of Monet’s unbelievably beautiful Nymphéas. These were the famous water lilies, presented as an immersive experience in a gallery of their own. I’ve been to the museum many times since then but have never again been alone with those remarkable paintings. But times are changing. When MoMA eventually reopens (no date has been announced, as of this writing), with new social distancing guidelines and fewer visitors allowed in at any given time, it may be possible to sit alone with the water lilies once more.
All of this is on my mind as we transition out of quarantine and look ahead to reopening Woodmere this coming Saturday, July 25. The experience will be different, as it will be at all museums. With the introduction of capacity limits set by the City and the Commonwealth, gone will be crowded members’ receptions, in-gallery music performances and classroom visits, and bustling galleries.
What’s the plan for the near future? Woodmere is fortunate to have six acres of outdoor space that offer safer, more easily shared group experiences. Until it gets cold, we’ll be experimenting with outside events, such as live jazz, drive-ins, and tours of Woodmere’s Outdoor Wonder, the experience of sculpture and nature on our grounds (click here). At the same time, we continue to build our presence online, with classroom activities and new forms of digital engagement. Some education programs, including teacher workshops, suddenly have national participation—a silver lining to be sure. And this Friday we’ll host our first virtual exhibition opening on Zoom, for Gilbert Lewis: Many Faces, Many Figures—click here to register.
For now, the museum experience inside Woodmere will be more like what I experienced as a child. Our galleries will again be quiet places that offer visitors time to be alone with their thoughts and with art. And this isn’t bad. In an era when so much of global culture is homogenized and filtered through the internet and social media, how wonderful it will be to spend time with a three-dimensional work of art that breathes through composition, texture, line, and color. Woodmere is well positioned as a museum that celebrates Philadelphia’s artists, offering experiences that are, by their nature local and self-reflective.
One of Woodmere’s newer acquisitions offers an experience I have the audacity to compare with that of Monet’s water lilies: Edmund Darch Lewis’s Edge of a Forest on the Susquehanna River (Early Morning). Made in 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War, the sunrise represents a new day for American society. The bright sun, painted in thick sculptural yellow, radiates warmth and dissolves the solidity of mountains. Morning light reflects off the river and penetrates its waters, creating mysterious shadows in its depths and on its surface. Glowing shades of orange, red, and purple spread across land and sky as the trees at the edge of the forest reach toward the sun, as trees do. This is just one of the many great paintings that are always on view in our historic galleries, which you can explore in advance, here. We hope you will reserve your ticket and be part of our reopening weekend—we look forward to seeing you from six feet apart!
William Valerio is the director of Woodmere Art Museum.
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