'Your Art Needs You!' at Westmoreland Museum of American Art

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 11:42 a.m.

For an art museum, it's not always about adding onto its collection but also preserving what it already owns.

The “Your Art Needs You!” exhibition, running through Feb. 17, is a way that the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is finding ways to fund conservation expenses for 133 pieces of art in its permanent collection.

By “adopting” a piece of art on display, individuals, businesses or groups can provide the financial assistance to return a worn or aged work closer to its original state, said to Barbara Jones, chief curator at the nonprofit museum, which is at 221 N. Main St. in Greensburg.

The exhibit also helps communicate a museum's often unrealized conservation needs.

“It's a good way to give the public an educational opportunity of what goes in a museum and the challenges we face,” Jones said.

In 2010, the museum had 537 pieces of its permanent collection surveyed by a conservator who relayed what, if any, restoration needs there were for each. Out of those, Jones chose 133 for the exhibition that she thought would be perfect adoptees.

The artwork, ranging from still lifes, portraits and landscapes to sculptures, is on display with documentation about what restoration each needs and its adoption cost, Jones said. Conservation assistance for pieces range from $275 to $16,000.

Each is listed with numbers indicating lower priority levels of one up to higher priority levels of four, she said.

Much of the exhibit features work by regional artists, such as artist Dorothy Lauer Davids of Greensburg, whose works include “Carnival at the Country Fair” and “Closed for the Duration,” according to Jones.

Many of these pieces have been donated by previous owners so they've been subjected to various environmental elements that affected their original state. Jones said pieces might have deteriorated through changes in temperature or humidity or perhaps by being outdoors.

For example, some had been in Pittsburgh homes during the active steel-industry days and need steel dust removed, she said.

“Things that need to be done are very detailed and time-consuming,” said Jones, who has been with the museum since 1995 and was promoted to chief curator two years ago.

For instance, “Portrait of Thomas McKean, 1776” by artist Charles Willson Peale has two conservation needs. The work needed by painting itself costs $6,750 at a Priority III level, Jones said. But like many others, its frame has some significant decorative qualities to it and also needs to be conserved at a cost of $8,500, though that is listed as a Priority I.

Because many of these pieces were given to the museum from personal collections, Barbara Ferrier of Greensburg, said, it's a great way to acknowledge these donors and to ensure the museum's important collection remains intact.

“This is an opportunity for us who are participating to give back. We are ensuring that their gifts are being preserved,” said Ferrier, 69, who is on The Community Foundation board of Westmoreland County.

She adopted three etchings on paper by Pittsburgh-born artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, who lived from 1859 to 1937, that were gifts of Dr. John J. McDonough and are titled “Return to the Tomb,” “Christ Walking on Water” and “The Mosque.” The total adoption amount was $1,200.

If it were not for the direction of Joan McGarry, the museum's director of education and visitor management, Ferrier said, she might have not chosen those particular works. But McGarry relayed the background of the works and artist, who Ferrier learned, is one of the most distinguished African-American artists of the 19th century and also reached rare international acclaim.

“I understand why it was selected as a Priority I,” Ferrier said.

McGarry said the works by Tanner are “truly a treasure,” as well as those of other artists featured at the museum. All the collections can provide various educational aspects for visitors, she said.

“We seek to try and educate anybody that comes in here,” said McGarry, who has been with the museum for two years.

She said art is a medium that is “extremely accessible and approachable” for anyone to enjoy; thus, conservation is important.

“If we take care of them now, they'll be around for a long, long time,” said McGarry, of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Michael Nieland and his wife, Lilli, of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, are frequent visitors to the museum and have adopted a bronze sculpture by Paul Wayland Bartlett called “Study for Courage Militaire,” a Priority I at an adoption cost of $3,200.

Michael Nieland said the “impressive” statue must have suffered outdoor weathering, thus, affecting its coloring. He said Bartlett did many important sculptures, including a well-known statue of the Marquis de Lafayette.

“I think conservation and restoration is the less glamorous part of museum presentation. But it's terribly important,” said Nieland, 74.

He encourages others to go to The Westmoreland.

“It's an easy 40-minute drive to Greensburg and well worth the reward of seeing the wonderful collection.”

Greensburg residents Sande and Rich Hendricks are adopting an oil on canvas by Joseph Woodwell titled “Boat Dock,” Sande Hendricks said.

It's a Priority II piece, and the $350 adoption cost will fund a new frame, Jones said.

Sande Hendricks, who originally is from Los Angeles, said she and her husband, who is from Long Island, N.Y., appreciate the artist's use of sea scenery in his work.

“It's just a wonderful piece of art,” said Sande Hendricks, who is a professional sculptor.

Those who adopt a piece of art will have a special wall label for one year near the artwork. The pieces all will be displayed in their conserved state after the museum “hopefully” reopens in early 2015 after a major remodeling and expansion, Jones said.

It's scheduled to close in August.

All donors will be recognized in the annual report, said Jones, of Greensburg. Also, each will receive a certificate of adoption for the chosen object or objects, she said.

Even if someone cannot afford to adopt a piece, donations of any size are appreciated and can be made to the museum's general conservation fund, Jones said. Those donating $50 or more will receive a complimentary copy the museum's permanent-collection catalogue, she said.

Jones, 60, said she hopes at least 50 percent of the exhibited works will be adopted.

Adopter Ferrier, who is 69, said she also is participating because she wants to these collections to continue so she always can enjoy museum.

“I plan on living the next 30 years,” she said. “I want this place to be active and have everything.”

Natalie Beneviat is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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