The Penn Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art are two of Philadelphia’s most well-known and highly regarded museums, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to Penn annually. Though small in size compared to these two sister campus exhibition locations, the single-room Arthur Ross Gallery (ARG) in the Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library serves as a rich cultural resource for students, art enthusiasts, and the visiting public.
The Gallery celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, an occasion patrons, supporters, and staff hope will garner wider appreciation of the “hidden gem” in Penn’s art community. The festivities got underway earlier this month with a reception featuring Adele Chatfield-Taylor, chair of the Friends of Arthur Ross Gallery and president and CEO of the American Academy in Rome. A year-long series of exhibitions of global art, lectures, and educational programs is planned, including the show “La Tauromaquia: Carnicero, Goya, and Picasso,” which opens on April 19 and runs through July 28.
Ross, the gallery’s namesake, was a successful New York businessman known for his philanthropic contributions to the arts and environmental causes. He died in 2007.
“He was here and going to school when the Great Depression hit. His family called him home and he finished his studies at Columbia, but he always considered himself an alum of Penn,” says ARG Director Lynn Marsden-Atlass. “He had a great affection for the University.”
By the 1980s, Ross’ foundation had accumulated a handsome art collection. While displaying a series of master prints by Goya at the Penn Library, he and Penn President Emeritus Martin Meyerson discussed expanding the University’s art and cultural offerings by converting an under-utilized trustee boardroom in the historic Frank Furness Building into a full-time gallery. Ross supported the renovation and establishment of the single-room gallery that bears his name.
In three decades, the Gallery’s mission has evolved. It now has an eclectic program of changing exhibitions from all fields of the visual arts and cultural artifacts from around the world. Walk into the Gallery one week and a visitor will see an installment of photographs illustrating issues of water and sustainability in the Dogon region of Mali. A month later, works by Chinese artists following the post-Cultural Revolution era are on display.
The exhibits are paired with events that aim to further the visitor’s understanding of the artists’ cultures. For example, during a recent exhibition of 20 hand-sewn Lakota quilts from the Pine Ridge Heritage Center and Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Gallery hosted a quilt-maker talk and a hoop dance performance.
“In the last five years we’ve been able to go from excellence to eminence,” Marsden-Atlass says, who took over from founding director Dilys Winegrad in 2008. “We want to make each exhibition new and different and to raise the bar each time.”
Marsden-Atlass is confident the eclectic and inspiring exhibit themes will continue to draw people to the Gallery. But she knows the key to fostering greater interest from outside the Penn campus is establishing new partnerships with the wider community.
For a 2009 exhibit documenting the 19th-century architectural and urban development of West Philadelphia, the Gallery worked with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to show a collection of watercolors by self-taught Scottish immigrant David J. Kennedy. West Philadelphia middle-school students were able to tour the exhibit through the Gallery’s “Engaging Minds through Art” outreach program, which serves 1,500 school-age children a year.
“Our audience is very mixed. We work with various elements of the regional community,” Marsden-Atlass says. “I try and extend the audience so it’s not just the internal community at the University.”
The Gallery remains a popular resource for Penn faculty. Last year the ARG partnered with the City of Philadelphia for an exhibit called “In Material,” which featured four local artists specializing in fiber art. The ARG website contains a link to poems inspired by the collection that were written by Penn undergraduates.
“Various faculty use the Gallery to teach from,” Marsden-Atlass says. In the past, undergraduate students have acted as volunteer curators to learn how art exhibitions are planned and organized. Students helped write signage and gave guided tours to visitors for a curatorial seminar on Brazilian art and film taught by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art, and Tamara J. Walker, an assistant history professor.
“It’s a very unique opportunity for our students,” Marsden-Atlass says. “We have a variety of events that are engaging programs both for the campus community and the wider regional community.”
The first exhibit of the anniversary celebration, “La Tauromaquia,” will feature some of the artwork Arthur Ross displayed 30 years ago at Penn when the idea for the Gallery first surfaced. The show highlights 70 master prints collected by the Arthur Ross Foundation and explores the long-revered tradition of the Spanish bullfight by featuring the works of three extraordinary artists—Antonio Carnicero, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, and Pablo Picasso. Each artist interpreted the popular entertainment in very different ways.
An April 19 symposium will feature talks by Dubois Shaw, Janis A. Tomlinson, director of University Museums at the University of Delaware, and Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery. Tickets are $20; Penn students are admitted free with a PennCard. Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, will give a talk on Museums and Communities in the 21st Century on April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Van Pelt Library.
Originally published on April 18, 2013