The Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown opens an exhibition this weekend of paintings borrowed from collections owned by area public schools.
Many of these works by major American artists in “Dedicated, Displayed, Discovered: Celebrating the Region’s School Art Collections” have never before been seen outside of school buildings.
In the early 20th century, there was an education theory popular among teachers that students should be exposed to original works of art in the classroom — not for instruction, but for pure beauty.
“The art objects stood for so much more than just visual art education,” said co-curator Adrienne Neszmelyi-Romano. “It was an idea that this represented the well-being of a child, and their mental health and behavior.”
Neszmelyi-Romano pulled together more than 40 paintings acquired by school districts in Philadelphia and Bucks County from the 1930s to the 1950s. During that time, the area was teeming with major artists developed in the style of Bucks Country impressionism — including Daniel Garber, Walter Schofield, and Edward Redfield — and with school administrators willing to put their budget where their mouth was regarding art appreciation.
Sometimes they would discover a surplus at the end of the year and decide to spend it on a painting.
One such advocate was Charles Dudley, principal of Woodrow Wilson Junior High in Philadelphia. He would write directly to local artists to solicit their work. He had a budget of $300 per painting, an eye for large-scale work (nothing less than 32 inches by 50 inches would do), and a fearless ability to haggle.
“Dudley was passionate and very, very persuasive,” said Neszmelyi-Romano. “For example, the George Pearse Ennis that we have was the result of a lot of bargaining. Ennis came down in this price quite a bit to accommodate Dudley. What’s special about it was the artists knew the importance of education schoolchildren.”
The paintings Neszmelyi-Romano borrowed for this exhibition no longer hang in classrooms, as they were originally intended, but the Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22 — a public school support agency — maintains its collection of about 300 paintings. Assisted by the Michener Museum, it rotates the collection through schools in Bucks County, cycling fresh work into libraries and hallways about every 10 weeks.