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Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern gets a $10 million gift out of the blue

The studio at the center of the museum, which is devoted to the legacy of the Philadelphia-born artist and craftsman, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern. The museum, which celebrates the work of the late sculptor and designer who lived and worked on the property it occupies, has received an unexpected $10 million gift from the Arkansas-based Windgate Foundation.
The Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern. The museum, which celebrates the work of the late sculptor and designer who lived and worked on the property it occupies, has received an unexpected $10 million gift from the Arkansas-based Windgate Foundation.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Mansfield “Bob” Bascom was in the final months of his life when he learned late this summer that the museum to which he and his late wife, Ruth, had devoted decades was going to be all right. Indeed, more than all right.

The museum had received an unexpected endowment gift of $10 million.

On Friday, the Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern made that news public. Executive director Julie Siglin had shared the good news with Bascom before his death on Oct. 26 at the age of 96.

The money, from the Arkansas-based Windgate Foundation, is a huge boost for an institution whose 2020 budget, pre-COVID-19, was $424,000, and arrives at a time when museums of all sizes are struggling.

“I just said, Bob, ‘I have news for you,’ ” said Siglin. “And Bob was never someone who was at a loss for words. … . So when all he had to say was, ‘Wow,’ I knew that this had really gotten to him.

“He had a picture of Ruth on the table,” Siglin said. “And he looked over at that picture of Ruth and he said, ‘See, Ruthie, we did it.’ And then he said some nice things to me. And he just kept saying, ‘Wow.’ ”

He and Ruth, who died in 2015, opened the museum nearly 50 years ago to preserve the legacy of her father, the Philadelphia-born artist and craftsman Wharton Esherick. The Bascoms, who married in 1962, had made preserving Esherick’s legacy and sharing his work their mission after the artist’s death in 1970.

“The reason they lived on the site was so they could be the people giving the tours, mowing the grass, doing the conservation work. Ruth would be ironing and people would roll up for a tour, and she’d put the ironing board away, and she’d tidy up her blouse and go give a tour,” Siglin said.

“They put a lot of personal investment, both financial and sweat equity and just total commitment, into this,” she said. “And like many museums, it gets harder and harder to retain focus from the public, in general, and then, of course, COVID came along.

“So to have a gift like this come in, that secures your operations in perpetuity, was so validating, for all of that work that Bob had put into this,” Siglin said. “He wrote an adorable letter to the foundation, in which he said, ‘Thanks a million.’ And then he crossed out the [’a’] and wrote 10.”

A local hidden gem

The Wharton Esherick Museum, recognized as a National Historic Landmark for Architecture in 1993, may be better known to out-of-town lovers of woodwork and architecture than it is in its own backyard. Just 27 miles from Philadelphia, “this place feels like it is out in the middle of nowhere,” wrote one architectural pilgrim.

Even in pre-pandemic times, tours were limited to 10 people, because they involved walking through “small domestic spaces full of the trappings of [Esherick’s] life,” Siglin said.

Among the buildings on the museum’s 12-acre campus are Esherick’s hand-built studio, a whimsical space that is the centerpiece of the museum and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. There’s also a workshop he designed with architect Louis Kahn, in which the Bascoms had lived, and the 1839 farmhouse Sunekrest (pronounced “Sunny Crest”), where the artist and his wife, Letty, first lived when they moved to the area in 1913.

Sold off in 2003, the farmhouse property was reacquired by the museum in 2014 with a $1 million grant from Windgate, a private family foundation whose funding relationship with the museum began in 1996. “I see a pattern in what Windgate has been doing across the country,” Siglin said. “They are shoring up craft organizations, at a time when many are in peril.”

Though the amount of Windgate’s latest gift was a surprise, “we knew that the foundation was interested” in the museum’s plans for expansion, she said. These include a new visitors’ center with space to exhibit contemporary artists, restoring the 1956 workshop to its original appearance, and building a terraced “ramble” for visitors that will connect the lower and upper portions of the site.

The annual draw from the new endowment should come to $400,000, Siglin said. “What this represents is an opportunity for us to meet our operating needs, and to ramp up our programs, and ensure that we’re expanding our base of fans and advocates and audience and donors.” They’ll also be able to hire staff for a capital campaign.

Powering through the pandemic

After an initial pandemic shutdown in the spring, the museum had reopened to an extremely limited number of visitors in September — only to close again last month after learning that a recent visitor had tested positive for COVID-19. Still, thanks to an existing $2 million endowment, Wharton Esherick has been better equipped to get through the pandemic than institutions more dependent on ticket sales, Siglin said.

“We were actually going to be able to limp along for a while,” she said. “And we have some other assets that we set aside.”

Prior to the museum’s current closure, its maximum tour size had fallen to four people, all from the same household. “The way we operate is, there are no didactic tech panels. Objects are not in cases or behind velvet barriers,” Siglin said, “and so a tour guide is necessary and social distancing can be difficult.”

For the moment, “by necessity, we’ve embraced virtual programming,” she said. “The day we were closing back down, because of that exposure, we did a virtual program with 85 people on it, that’s more than we usually see in a day.

“We had a family from India join one of our programs, and they are huge Esherick fans. And the guy, he held up a copy of the biography [that Mansfield Bascom published of Esherick in 2010], and he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go there. I don’t know if I’ll get there. But I love this.’ ”