The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 29, 2012

'We can put on a show'


— In 35 years, the permanent collection of Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto has grown from less than 100 pieces of artwork to more than 4,000.

Scott Dimond, curator for visual art, has been at the museum for several years and is still impressed.

What Dimond noticed before applying for a job at the Loretto museum was its educational outreach programs, which he considers top-notch for a museum this size and as good as or better than similar programs at an urban museum.

“Considering the demographics and needs of the people, they go above and beyond, to schools and to all folks,” Dimond said.

Dimond, who was born in the state of Indiana and grew up in California, has a local connection through his mother’s ancestors, who settled in Bedford.

Before coming to Pennsylvania, Dimond worked at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vt., the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“I’ve worked at museums great and small,” he said.

The bulk of the museum’s collection of 4,200 to 4,300 works of art is stored at the Loretto facility, with some stored at the Altoona satellite.

“We can put on a show,” said Dimond, who goes into the several large rooms where the collection is stored to curate shows, catalog and research and to interpret.

Paintings are stored on close-fitting sliding racks that can be pulled out. Prints are stored in print cabinets where they can lie flat, and there are wall slots for other works on paper.

Sculptures are stored where there is space on the floor.

Dust is not an issue, and Dimond said covering a sculpture could actually cause harm.

The temperature is set between 68 and 72 degrees and humidity at 45 to 50 percent, what Dimond considers ideal conditions.

Climate controls are monitored for any changes, and no natural light is allowed.

Dimond warned that fluorescent lighting is damaging to artwork and anyone who has the two together should consider changing.

“Storage is always an issue at any museum,” Dimond said. “The bulk of the collection is in storage, with 5 percent out at the four sites.”

“Most museums don’t have enough gallery space for everything to get equal air time, so to speak.”

Dimond also must keep track of what art is presently out of storage and when a piece was last out for a show.

“Some want to see the same thing all the time, especially Colleen Browning,” Dimond said. “I don’t like to do the same theme more than once every 10 years, but it depends on the subject.”

Geoffrey Wagner, Browning’s husband, bequeathed a major collection of more than 100 paintings, drawings and memorabilia spanning Browning’s life and career to the museum in 2010.

This material makes up the bulk of the museum’s most recent special collection and will be the focus of a major traveling exhibition planned for 2011-2013.

When patrons wish to donate artwork, it is Dimond’s job to judge whether the pieces are needed or historically important enough.

“I have to know what the strengths and weaknesses of the collection are,” he said.

The museum also has acquisition funds, which are used to acquire new art once every other year.

 Museum founder and first president Sean M. Sullivan shaped the collection’s basic framework through the establishment of the Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund, which has provided the museum with some of its most highly regarded objects from 1973 to the present.

The 1980s saw a new trend toward the donation of groups of art objects.

Through the establishment of the R.K. Mellon Family Foundation Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, the R.K. Mellon family was able to purchase art for the permanent collection.

A second acquisition fund, the Margery Wolf-Kuhn Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, was formed by Margery Wolf-Kuhn and the Wolf family.

In 1985, the museum acquired the first of its special collections, more than 400 posters and commercial prints dating mainly from the 1960s to the 1980s, presented by the artist, Mark del Costello.

The Charles M. Schwab collection, which includes presentation silver and other small decorative arts, was the gift of Bethlehem Steel Corp.

In addition to the gifts of individuals and families, groups of donors banded together to form the SAMA Collectors Club, which presented the museum with a number of fine works on paper, beginning in 1987.

Dimond’s wish list of artwork he would like to see at SAMA includes early American modern paintings from 1915 to 1950, before abstract expressionism became big.

“We don’t have a heavy strength there,” he said. “We also don’t have a wide range of anything before the Civil War.”

Dimond also would like to see contemporary prints by local artists, plus original paintings and sculptures.

Executive director Gary Moyer has heard the public’s opinion of the museum, which is top-notch.

“On several occasions when I was walking through the museum during an opening reception, I heard people say, ‘This exhibition would be the envy of a larger, urban museum,’ ” Moyer said. “For a small, rural museum, we’re world class. It’s unique for a small, rural museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.”

Dimond has written an extensive essay on the museum’s permanent collection, one of the reasons he was hired.

“This is the first one done since 1996,” Dimond said. “The collection has more than doubled since then.”

Dimond believes the most growth occurred in the museum’s permanent collection in the 1990s, after the satellite facilities were built.

“They quadrupled our ability to reach the people, and it’s been going on since then,” Dimond said.

The museum’s mission emphasizes the collecting of American art and the regional art of Pennsylvania.  

In its first year, the museum mounted a major show featuring the Virginia Steel Scott Collection, a world premiere of American art mounted during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

The exhibition put the museum on the art world’s map early in its history.

The permanent collection grew significantly during the 1990s as individual gifts, art acquisition funds, bequests and additional special collections increased the museum’s holdings.

The decade was rich in gifts of photography, both vintage and contemporary.  

That time saw the first of many generous gifts by Pittsburgh photographer Donald M. Robinson, who has since made the museum the chief repository of his work.

When the Rezk Collection of Tibetan and Nepalese Art, the most unusual of the museum’s special collections, was acquired in the early 1990s, it was considered to be well outside the museum’s collecting mission.  

The collection’s importance as a resource was recognized, and the museum’s mission statement was modified, allowing SAMA to serve as a repository for distinctive collections.

“We knew we could find room for them,” Dimond said. “We would have been foolish to turn them away.”

The 1990s also saw the addition of the Walter Carlyle Shaw Collection, which features a comprehensive selection of antique and modern paperweights by some of the world’s foremost glass artisans.

A new kind of supporter began to play a prominent role in augmenting the permanent collection in the 1990s.  

Art galleries and their principals donated a number of outstanding works or facilitated gifts directly from leading painters, printmakers, photographers and sculptors.  

As the museum approached its 20th anniversary in 1996, old and new supporters came forward with gifts to mark the occasion.  

Area artists began to donate their own work to the museum as well, laying the groundwork for what is now one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Pennsylvania art.

Significant regional artists include Franklin Briscoe, Frederick Counsel, George Hetzel and William Rau.  

In recent years, the museum has featured major solo exhibitions of artists such as Ansel Adams, Wayman Adams, Colleen Browning, Adolf Dehn, Balcomb Greene and Joseph Holston.

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