Art museums and the quest to find truth

by William Valerio
Posted 1/21/21

The beginning of a new year is a time to reflect on the past year in order to move forward more thoughtfully. At Woodmere, this is always the agenda for our first staff meeting in January.

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Art museums and the quest to find truth

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The beginning of a new year is a time to reflect on the past year in order to move forward more thoughtfully. At Woodmere, this is always the agenda for our first staff meeting in January.

Last week, the unsettling events in the U. S. Capitol entered into our usual staff conversations about resolutions. In discussing our goals for 2021, we talked about the role of museums as institutions that uphold truth. Certainly we do our meticulous best to get the facts and grammar right when we produce catalogues, write labels, and post information about artists on our website.

Museums are like schools, not only for the students who come to us for a classroom assignment, but also for everyone who comes through our doors. But the kind of truth being discussed is the more subjective truth that artists invest in their work. It turns out that we on the staff believe that what earns a painting or sculpture a place in Woodmere’s galleries is its maker’s ability to express some sense of truth in visual form about the emotions or ideas of their time. We hope you agree.

Context and ideological assumptions will necessarily be different for 18th-century Philadelphia artists relative to those working today. Our job, as Curator of Education Hildy Tow described it, is to help our visitors slow down in order to look and think with care about the many different truths on display. This is not to debate the notion of objective truth, but instead to embrace the many different truths that come from the diversity of life experiences represented in our galleries. This is how we grow as people. It is well documented that engaging with art builds the human mind, creating empathy and understanding of social differences. For sure, watching the news last week, this is something we need.

So, we are thrilled to be open again, and we are confident that our mask-wearing and social distance policies create a safe experience. As always, you will find the truths of many different artists on view.

Moses Williams, an African American artist who gained his freedom from enslavement in 1802, made black-and-white silhouette portraits, conveying essential truths about stark color distinctions and individual destinies.

Helen Corson, a painter raised in a family of Quaker abolitionists in the nineteenth century, depicted her daughter playing the harmonica to the family dog to capture the fragile truth embedded in an innocent love unencumbered by external forces.

Walter Elmer Schofield, Chestnut Hill’s great American Impressionist, expresses the truth of the majesty and beauty of the Wissahickon, and a belief in nature as the holder of life’s meaning. Sam Feinstein and the painters of mid-century Philadelphia expressed truth through gestural abstraction, stripping away narrative to enable the search inward of emotions associated with a society in the throes of social change.

Sam Maitin, whose colorful, bird-like outdoor sculptures greet every visitor to Woodmere and passerby on Germantown Avenue, found joy in the truth of Philadelphia’s civic spaces; his works were part of a series he had proposed in 1976 to line both sides of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Art Museum to City Hall.

And finally, if you take a peek behind our painting studio on Bells Mill Road, you’ll find truths in the work of Steve Donegan and Syd Carpenter, husband-and-wife artists working together to build a monumental earth sculpture, La Cresta, which is Spanish for The Ridge.

I’ll be writing more about La Cresta and volunteer opportunities associated with it in future articles. For now, let me say that Woodmere is committed to providing hands-on experiences that make the arts part of life. Whether it’s your thing to get your hands dirty building an earth sculpture, or to attend a music performance and meet the players afterward with a glass of wine in hand, the opportunities that museums offer can be as beautiful and truth-building as the art on the walls.

I look forward to seeing you. And please note that for the month of January, Woodmere will be open from Thursday through Sunday only as we ease into our reopening. Advance tickets are encouraged and can be purchased by visiting our website. Regular hours, Tuesday through Sunday, will return in February.

William Valerio is The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum.

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