BY RUTH RICE
Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art began in a gymnasium on the campus of St. Francis College, now a university, in Loretto.
It is now Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto, the main spoke on a wheel of four area museums.
The Rev. Sean M. Sullivan, TOR, was president of St. Francis College in 1973, and a driving force behind the establishment of the museum.
“It was my idea,” Sullivan said.
“Doyle Hall, which was a gymnasium, was empty because we had built a sports center. The college wanted it for a fine arts center, but when I looked at it, I thought the space would be good for a museum.”
The space that is now used as a secondary gallery was a running track.
After the trustees’ approval, an architect was brought in to see how the space could be used.
An article in the May 1978 issue of Progressive Architecture describes the newly minted museum’s transformation.
Converting a former college gym built in the 1920s into an independent museum was the job of Roger Ferri, a young, unknown architect.
Steel pieces, translucent or reflective glass windows or panels and painted gypsum board provided the basic elements for the transformation.
Ferri started at the entrance court to the building, using steel framing extending from the sidewalk to the entrance to create a “gate,” then a “canopy” over the small gardenlike courtyard.
Inside, black framing continued through the foyer, edging an arched indoor “canopy” suspended below the regular ceiling.
Black steel also frames a one-story antechamber visitors must pass through to enter the two-story, 5,900-square-foot exhibit hall.
A partially open ceiling is suspended by black steel trusses in the 66-by-89-foot exhibit space, and black lighting rods are used in the handrailing bordering the mezzanine, the former jogging track.
Spaces are modulated by walls and ceiling heights, and reflective or translucent glass and acrylic panels are used.
Windows were blocked on both levels of the south and west walls to add extra display space, and the jogging track was kept to provide an area for viewing small-scale artworks.
The museum’s first director, Michael M. Strueber, said people who visited the museum often didn’t know what it was that made the place special, but they were drawn to it.
The museum was created at a cost of $365,000 or $41 per square foot.
At first, the museum had nothing to exhibit. Then, in June 1976, it opened its doors with a permanent collection of 47 paintings, drawings and sculptures, along with a collection of 20 etchings by John Sloan.
Before Sullivan left St. Francis a short time later, there was a bicentennial exhibition featuring famous American artists.
“It was sensational,” Sullivan said.
“It was my decision to have only American art. You have to limit your collection in some way.”
Sullivan was elected the first president of the museum’s board of trustees, and is now trustee emeritus.
When Strueber came to Loretto as director, he said, the only displayed art to be found in the area was at tents at art festivals, and regional artists had no place to exhibit their works in a gallery setting.
“We had to decide what to collect, which was 20th-century American art,” Strueber said.
“We now have more than 4,000 pieces. We made it accessible and affordable. We tried to collect what was of interest to the region and state, going into a national perspective and influence.”
A strong emphasis has been placed on works on paper, such as prints and photographs in the Loretto museum’s upstairs and side galleries.
“This served the museum well and has significantly grown,” Strueber said.
“Exhibit-wise, the emphasis began with a triennial exhibition featuring the art of the region.”
Statewide, the museum drew in works from realist painter Andrew Wyeth and woodworker and furniture maker George Nakashima.
“Our early exhibits jump-started our reputation across the state,” Strueber said. “No other museum in Pennsylvania puts such an emphasis on Pennsylvania artists and printmakers. Everyone became aware of us from our exhibits. We want to serve artists regionally and across the state.”
The idea of a satellite model for the museum was conceived by Strueber, who was director for 24 years, and is now director emeritus.
He was inspired while attending an American Association of Museums conference in Boston and seeing the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ satellite museum that had recently opened.
“They established a satellite in Quincy Market, the heart of the tourist district,” Strueber said from his Florida home.
“They had a five-year free lease if they would bring part of their permanent collection there to have a sample of what they had at their main museum.
“I thought the idea was brilliant and wanted to adapt it to our region. We called our museum Southern Alleghenies because we wanted to serve the whole region. We were the first to dare to cross county lines.”
The Loretto museum has developed into a museum satellite system with four sites in three counties, offering programs, exhibitions and events.
Expansion began in 1979 when the museum opened its Altoona extension in a bank building.
In 1995, the Altoona museum moved to its present location in the Brett Building in downtown Altoona.
In the summer of 1982, another facility was opened in the Central Park Commons building in downtown Johnstown. Then a little more than a decade later, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Johnstown found a home in the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center on the campus of Pitt-Johnstown in Richland Township.
In the fall of 1997, the museum moved its expansion into Westmoreland County and established Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley on the site of a former gas station.
“The site had to be cleaned, and there were three log houses that were combined into one long, lean look,” Strueber said. “It was a major achievement. The Carnegie or the Westmoreland would have come in (had SAMA not done it).”
Strueber said the Altoona and Ligonier sites cost millions of dollars to establish, and he did both without a capital campaign, relying on the generosity of donations.
“I never dreamt they would be permanent,” Strueber said of the satellite locations.
“They were a natural growth because people enjoyed what they saw. They took pride in it and wanted to see it perpetuate.
“We do traveling exhibitions among the three spaces, so we minimize cost and maximize institutional resources.”
With four museum sites spread across western Pennsylvania, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art is able to bring more than 70,000 visitors through its doors each year.
The Boston museum’s satellite has since closed, leaving the Loretto museum with the oldest ongoing satellite facilities of its type.
“From a rural perspective, there’s nothing like it in the United States,” Strueber said.
“Satellites are rare.”
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