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The Arthur Ross Gallery 1983--2003

Twenty Years of Gallery Graphics

by Dilys Winegrad, Director and Curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery

Four family members were represented in Peales at Penn, 1996, from the University's Collection, mounted in conjunction with The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Arthur Ross Gallery shares a grand entry with the Fisher Fine Arts Library, designed by Frank Furness. Lamps created by sculptor Robert Engman after an unexecuted design by Furness provide the Gallery with its nautilus logo.


The first exhibition devoted to Navajo "eye-dazzlers," November 1994-February 1995, included this late classic serape from the University of Colorado Museum at Boulder.

Art and Ephemera

In times of peace, people with the means to travel have always gone afield in search of rare sights and famous works of art. Such tourists inevitably return with souvenirs, proof that they have seen the eternal wonders of Nature,

have visited the temples, churches, museums, or private collections, quasi permanent institutions housing famed objects of art. In antiquity, travelers might purchase figurines of famous statues; later on, Grand Tourists could collect prints depicting sites or reproducing celebrated works. (With time, the prints themselves have often come to be prized objects in their own right.) Nowadays, traveling exhibitions tend to reverse the process. Not incidentally, shows that bring together objects from across the world in a single great museum also contribute to local tourism. Still, the urge to record what we have seen with our own eyes remains strong; it is easy enough for a traveler with a camera to substitute digitally enhanced images for those furnished in earlier times by the sketchbook or purchases from enterprising local artists.

Exhibitions are ephemeral unlike the exhibits--the actual objects temporarily placed on display. (Or at least, this is the fervent prayer of any curator!) After a certain time, loaned works must be returned to studios or to their place in public or private collections. Organizers usually extend the life of an exhibition beyond its limited span by producing printed materials to accompany the show. Whether fine illustrated catalogues or humble cards and flyers, these provide visitors with something to take home for reference or as an aide-mémoire. Once again, it falls to the graphic arts to capture the moment--to give a semblance of permanence to what is transitory.

After twenty years and a hundred or so exhibitions, the Arthur Ross Gallery finds itself in possession of a host of memories and numerous posters recording the variety of visual art the Gallery has brought to Penn, the City of Philadelphia, and the region. These incidental artifacts, modest but often quite striking, also provide a paper trail from 1983 to 2003 and beyond. In addition, they further offer a way into the process of reviewing two decades of a gallery's activity.

20 Years of Gallery Graphics

Photograph by Brian Edwards, Shoot Digital
20 Years of Openings at the Arthur Ross Gallery, detail, collage of invitations by Naomi Usher.

The eighties were a popular decade for establishing new university galleries, many of them concerned with contemporary art. At Penn, the Arthur Ross Gallery opened its doors on February 8, 1983. Apart from adding to the cultural attractions in the area, including the Institute of Contemporary Art, already established on campus, the Gallery had a broad yet distinctive mission: to present art and artifacts from ancient civilizations up to current cultural developments; and to respond to proposals from academic departments as well as artists and the community.

By providing a forum for visual learning and instruction and for the presentation of creative research as well as the work of creative artists the Gallery contributes a visual dimension to scholarship and teaching at the University. With modest resources, as a self-standing institution within the University, the Gallery serves a range of intellectual and aesthetic interests on campus and in the community. It has proved adept in devising a visual component in non-traditional areas--history along with art history, ecology as well as archaeology, the School of Medicine no less than the School of Fine Arts.

Exhibitions have been organized in connection with milestones in the history of the University and its individual Schools or to welcome visiting scholars to conferences on Chaucer, Psychiatry--or the Fall of the Berlin Wall (upcoming in 2004). Recent meetings in Philadelphia of the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Philological Association, and the American Schools of Oriental Research were the occasion of North Americans in the Aegean Bronze Age: the Discovery of Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations (January 2002) curated by Professor Philip Betancourt, Karen Vellucci, and Elizabeth Shank of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in West Philadelphia. The exhibition brought together drawings, archival photographs, and archaeological objects excavated by Penn archaeologists, many working at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the early years of the twentieth century. Such exhibitions serve to showcase existing University collections by highlighting seldom-seen treasures along with several centuries of institutional history.

Posters serve to memorialize an event as well as to broadcast information at the time of a show. They have wound up on the walls of student dorms and framed in living rooms and offices. Quality, and originality, have been key along with the guiding principle that good design should record and reflect the great variety and high caliber of the art that has appeared in the Gallery since it opened its doors.

At the beginning of the Gallery's 20th year, posters were assembled for the exhibition POSTERS/POSTERS/POSTERS: 20 Years of Gallery Graphics, which greeted the Class of '06 when they arrived on campus in September 2002. The posters recorded exhibitions on all manner of subjects in a variety of media while making an aesthetic statement of their own. In addition, they provided a visual accounting of the Gallery's 20-year history. No poster was produced for the occasion, but the introductory panel, a large photocollage of invitations provided the graphic for the invitation and other publications.

Chronologically a patchwork, the exhibitions represented by the posters nonetheless fall into natural groupings according to medium, subject matter, provenance, or interest. The Gallery was built as a library in the 1920s, so prints and drawings look particularly good on the wainscoted walls of the main space. Textiles, another favored subject matter, particularly the extremely long Moroccan rugs loaned for Mysteries of the Maghreb: Rugs and Textiles of North Africa (1997), take advantage of the Gallery's exceptional height as do paintings displayed "salon style." This was necessary--and successful--for the huge pieces loaned by the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork for Irish Art 1770-1990: History and Society (1995) and Travels in the Labyrinth--Mexican Art in the Pollak Collection (2001). Faculty artists and student groups have been invited to show their work; photographers and architects are regularly featured as are groups of vintage photographs and architectural drawings. Books from Penn collections and others have not only been featured but have provided a fascinating component in shows from The Intellectual World of Benjamin Franklin to Edward Lear's Greece 1848-1864 featuring an artist better known for his limericks. Travelling exhibitions have been mounted in various contexts; but by far the majority of exhibitions have been organized from public and private collections by Gallery staff and guest curators, among them Penn faculty and their students. In 1999-2000, Professor Fredrik Hiebert ransacked major Uzbek museums of art and archaeology--with the permission of President Karimov himself--to bring Treasures of Uzbekistan in many media and dating from 4 millennia. Most recently, for Antiquity Recovered: Pompeii and Herculaneum in Philadelphia Collections Professor Coates and Getty curator Jon Seidl drew from a dozen Philadelphia collections to highlight the influence of these archaeological excavations on Philadelphia collectors--not to mention Philadelphia tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries!

-- Excerpted from the 20th-Year Report of the Arthur Ross Gallery, in press

Review of Posters/Posters Show

We live in a world where a plethora of tacky graphic forms surround us daily. An abundance of promotional suggestions, in print and on television, urges us to acquire or select all sorts of frequently needless products and services, from suntan lotion to public servants. More often than not, these messages produced for massive audiences are tiresome, banal, annoying, and boring to our eyes and mind. One has to wonder where so much offensive ugliness and sheer vulgarity come from.

By contrast, we occasionally confront examples of refreshing typography and layout design that have been conceived and executed by the exercise of good taste and original creative effort. These are informative and visually attractive. A perfect case in point was the collection of posters produced over the past years calling attention to exhibitions presented in the Arthur Ross Gallery. It is a pleasure to single out such superb examples because they showed how the practice of imaginative graphic design may be pursued with dignity, integrity, legibility--and admirable esthetic appeal.

-- Burton Wasserman, professor of art,
College of Fine Art and Performing Arts, Rowan University; critic for Art Matters

Neil Welliver: Recent Studies, 1987, included the large painting Burnt Stump and Wild Rose, 1986, along with the artist's collection of small oils shown at the Gallery for the first time.

Saul Steinberg: About America 1948-1995. The Collection of Jeffrey and Sivia Loria, October 1995-January 1996, presented playful and profound images, among them the original paintings for well-known New Yorker covers.


Leslie Bowen's oil with mixed media The Sun and the Moon was seen in the juried exhibition Confronting Cancer Through Art, 1999, the Gallery's second collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center featuring artists whose lives had been touched by cancer. For more works in this exhibit see Almanac September 7, 1999.

Louis I. Kahn's structural model for the Richards Medical Research Laboratory at Penn was featured in both The Architect's Design: Drawings, Models, and Manuscripts from the Architectural Archives, 1984, and Constructing Penn: Heritage, Imagination, Innovation organized for President Rodin's inauguration in 1994. Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 22, February 18, 2003