A 23-foot-high stone wall is the first clue the Michener Museum lives in what used to be a prison. The entrance is an immense solid archway, and the first courtyard is a luscious sculpture garden that leads to an airy building made up of many sections. As if to emphasize its role as a gateway to the arts, the old warden’s office has been Bruce Katsiff’s domain as he helped make the Michener into a regional cultural gem.
It took more than 20 years to transform Doylestown’s Michener Museum from an 19th century prison to an internationally recognized art collection. Right now you can view its large group of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings right next to a traveling exhibition of religious art from the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
Katsiff, a renowned photographer and educator, who’s returning to making art instead of selecting it, has been the Michener’s catalyst.
“It was a dream. When people come together in a community, the first thing that they do is put up a church. And then after they have a church, they put up a prison. And then after they have a prison, then they build a school, and perhaps a university. And when all that stuff is in place, they think about putting up museums. A museum is a symbol that a community has come of age,” said Katsiff.
As far back as the turn of the 20th century, Bucks County’s geography and landscape became a magnet for a succession of painters whose work eventually became known as the Pennsylvania Impressionism. In the 1940s and ’50s, its proximity to New York brought another wave of artists and writers as described by the museum’s namesake, prolific novelist James Michener.
“We had two cycles in Bucks County, each very honorable, each worth remembering. One was the cycle of the painters. Then a group of writers descended on Doylestown, and it was impressive,” said Michener in a 1996 interview. “Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Pearl Buck, eight or nine others. So the writers picked up where the painters left off.”
That legacy is well documented in the book “The Genius Belt,” published by the Museum. The impact of that dizzying concentration of talent and creativity cannot be underestimated said David Leopold, who has curated many exhibitions at the Michener.
“If you look at the impact of Bucks County in American popular culture, it is immense. The idea of what we call a musical today is because of Oscar Hammerstein; he changed the brainless musical into something that tells a story,” said Leopold.
James Michener was born in 1907 in Doylestown and died 90 years later in Texas, but he lived long enough to see the museum flourish. Raised a Quaker, he also liked the idea, said Katsiff, that the old prison had been creatively repurposed.
“The prison system in America was really designed by the Quakers. And the Quakers believed that if you put a prisoner in solitary confinement they would find their inward light. It would change their lives,” said Katsiff. “Here we are at this prison, which was once a kind of symbol of fear and a symbol of maybe some of the worst elements of society, and it’s been converted to a museum.”
After two decades at the Michener, Katsiff is preparing to leave to return to his photo studio and reflect on his journey as the museum’s first director. The practical experience of making art, his art degrees from the Pratt Institute and Oxford, and his Philadelphia childhood helped shape Katsiff’s vision.
“Well, this boy … I’m working class. My dad was a butcher. My mom was a seamstress. You know, I am not an Ivy League graduate,” said Katsiff. “It’s not about whether I would hang that painting in my house. That’s not the criteria for the artwork you show in a museum. It’s about: Do we think that artist brings together both a mastery of their craft and also some insight into the human condition,” he said.
On July 9th, Lisa Tremper Hanover, the former director of the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, will take over the reins at the Michener to start her own journey in Doylestown.