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Woodmere Art Museum receives $10 million gift that will allow display of its full collection for the first time

"Transformative" gift will change the face of the Chestnut Hill museum, bring its art out of storage and into the forefront.

William Valerio, Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum, walks through the recently acquired historic mansion showing the rooms and spaces that will be converted and renovated, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
William Valerio, Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum, walks through the recently acquired historic mansion showing the rooms and spaces that will be converted and renovated, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The Woodmere Art Museum on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill has received a $10 million gift from the Maguire Foundation, which will allow total renovation of a nearby historic estate acquired just months ago into major gallery and classroom space for the museum.

The mansion, formerly a residence owned by the Sisters of Saint Joseph and called St. Michael’s Hall, will be completely renovated and renamed the Frances M. Maguire Hall for Art and Education.

William Valerio, Woodmere’s director and chief executive, called the gift and the renovation project it will completely fund, “transformative” for the museum.

The $10 million is the largest gift in Woodmere’s history, he said.

“It’s a huge, huge transformative thing for Woodmere and for everybody involved and for Philadelphia’s artists and for Philadelphia so I’m really excited about that,” Valerio said Tuesday.

“The main point to be made here is that Woodmere’s collection is one of the great collections of American art, and it’s been sitting here in plain sight for quite some time,” Valerio continued. “It’s just never had the visibility to be recognized as an important collection. What this does for Woodmere is it puts it on the map of national museums of American art that should be reckoned with and considered distinct.”

Frances M. Maguire was a well-known Chestnut Hill artist and patron who with her husband, James J. Maguire, created the Maguire Foundation. She served on the Woodmere board for several years and died in 2020.

The Woodmere collection is comprised of about 9,500 artworks, with particular strength in work by Violet Oakley, the Red Rose Girls (Oakley, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green), and Arthur B. Carles and his circle of painters and printmakers. More recently, the museum has been building its holdings of contemporary Philadelphia artists as well as artists of color.

“Philadelphia has one of the great stories of art in America since the 18th century and that’s what this collection is about,” said Valerio, but the museum, which occupies an old Victorian mansion a couple of houses away from its new property, has never had the space to display the collection properly, he said.

James Alexandre, Woodmere’s board chair, called the gift “a signature moment, not just for Woodmere but for Philadelphia and its community of artists.”

Most of the 17,000 square feet of space contained in what will be Maguire Hall will serve as galleries and public spaces. It will also contain the museum’s new Love Kids Art Center, which Valerio dubbed “a game-changer,” expanding the museum’s capacity to provide programming for schoolchildren and families.

Valerio said the goal is to have the building fully renovated and in use by the end of 2024.

“We hope to have our permits by December or January at the latest and we anticipate a year and a half of construction,” he said.

Woodmere first learned in March 2021 that the Sisters of Saint Joseph, owners of St. Michael’s Hall, intended to sell it. With the potential of development doors away on a spacious and leafy four-acre parcel, the museum rallied its Chestnut Hill neighbors, garnering community support and contributions, allowing for its purchase for $2.5 million in October of 2021.

Maguire Hall was originally built in 1854 as a country estate for the family of Maria Louisa Farr Trotter and William Henry Trotter, an importer of steel, copper, and tin. In the 1890s, the house was renovated by sugar merchant Alfred C. Harrison, working with Cope and Stewardson, a distinguished Philadelphia firm at the time.

For the Maguire Hall project, the lead architect will be Matthew Baird Architects of New York. Baird will be working in partnership with Krieger + Associates Architects and Andropogon Associates, the landscape architects.

“For Woodmere, the collection has always been in the dark, it’s always been something taken for granted,” said Valerio. “Woodmere was defined by its building, by this big Victorian tower in Chestnut Hill. It was not defined by its collection the way the Philadelphia Museum of Art is defined by Marcel Duchamp and defined by Thomas Eakins ...

“For Woodmere, we are Violet Oakley, we are Arthur B. Carles. We are Edith Neff. We are Larry Day. We are the multicultural spectrum of contemporary art in Philadelphia today.”

Maguire Hall will have “galleries dedicated to Philadelphia, contemporary artists, and will be the only museum in the city of Philadelphia to have that,” he said “You know, that’s incredibly exciting.”