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Hidden for years, Philly schools' art hangs in a museum - for now

A new exhibit of local schools' artwork is at the James A. Michener Museum through Jan. 7. It includes 15 paintings from the notable, hidden collection of the Philadelphia School District that have not been seen in more than a decade.

Two women look over part of a new exhibit at the Michener Museum in Doylestown featuring art owned by various school districts, including Philadelphia’s.
Two women look over part of a new exhibit at the Michener Museum in Doylestown featuring art owned by various school districts, including Philadelphia’s.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Arlene Holtz had been waiting for more than a decade for the moment when she could lay eyes on the important artwork that once lined the hallways of the Philadelphia school where she had been principal. When it came, tears welled in her eyes as she looked upon paintings by Walter Baum, Dox Thrash, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.

"It was like seeing old friends," said Holtz, retired principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Northeast. "It was wonderful, but bittersweet."

More than a decade ago, Philadelphia School District officials abruptly removed hundreds of significant paintings, antiques, and artifacts from city schools, saying the art amassed over a century was too valuable to be hanging unsecured.

Mystery has surrounded the collection, which has been kept in an undisclosed location since 2004. Records of the art were closely held — a retired teacher had to go to court to get a full accounting of the works held in storage — and some pieces were considered missing. The district declines to say exactly where the works have been kept.

At one point, school leaders said the collective works could be valued at as much as $30 million. In times of financial crises, they debated selling off some but ultimately decided the true value of the works, about $4 million, was less important than their cultural and educational worth.

This month, 15 of the most notable of the pieces are again visible to the public — part of an exhibit at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. And the works have finally been examined, photographed, and cataloged. Some were damaged over time while in schools, but no pieces are missing, said Deborah Klose, the head of arts education for the school system, who completed the inventory herself. (In some cases, dozens of paintings had been bundled together when they were removed from schools, with only the details of the visible work recorded.)

"We have such jewels," Klose said. "We have to use them — they're part of the history of the district."

For now, 15 Philadelphia paintings, and other works from Bucks County school districts, are on display at the Michener in "Dedicated, Displayed, Discovered: Celebrating the Region's School Art Collections." School groups may visit for free, and officials are exploring bus transportation for students from Wilson, Spruance, and Waring — the three city schools whose paintings are exhibited.

It is a remarkable moment for Adrienne Neszmelyi-Romano, the exhibit's curator. Neszmelyi-Romano wrote her graduate thesis about city schools' artwork, and she first laid eyes on many of the works in 2000 on a visit to Wilson, where many of the most notable paintings were hung.

Charles Dudley, principal from 1928 to 1950 of the school then known as Wilson Junior High, built the school's "fine collection of original oil paintings," as he once described the works in a newsletter. He believed in theories of the time — that exposing children to art would teach them to have good behavior and morals, in addition to beautifying the building — and he raised money in part by charging a nickel to show visitors the collection.

Dudley drove a hard bargain. He appealed directly to local artists, but stressed that he wanted large works — 32 by 50 inches, at minimum — and would spend no more than $300 a painting.

"He said no to some significant artists because of the price," said Neszmelyi-Romano. Still, Dudley created a "museumlike atmosphere for children," she said, with a number of works from his friend Baum, a Pennsylvania impressionist born in Bucks County, and others of note, including Thrash and Tanner, important African American artists.

The exhibit also contains works from the New Hope-Solebury, Pennridge, Souderton, and Quakertown school systems and the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, which for decades has circulated its own significant collection through schools throughout the county, now with the Michener's assistance.

That the works from Philadelphia and other districts are now publicly visible is important, said Neszmelyi-Romano and Louise Feder, assistant curator.

"We want to make sure that this is accessible to as many students as possible," said Feder.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 7. At its conclusion, the works will be returned to storage. (The district could not immediately provide the amount it is paying annually to store its collection.)

Klose, the Philadelphia district official, said the school system could return work only to a school that could keep it safe. Central High, for instance, retrieved works that had been removed from its walls, but it is able to store them in its climate-controlled, secure library.

"We want to create teaching materials," said Klose. "Perhaps if there's a school that would really love to have their artwork, but can't guarantee its safety, we could make a proxy of the work, and put it on display for the kids to see."

Klose said she would also like to research establishing a traveling collection or show and generating revenue for arts education that way.

Holtz, who along with former Wilson teacher Marilyn Krupnick has campaigned to have the works returned to schools, loves the exhibit and appreciates that some of the work is back in the public eye, for now. But she still feels a keen sense of loss, she said.

"It feels like a metaphor," said Holtz, who left Wilson in 2002. "They have cut out so many of the things that people love — diminished the curriculum, diminished the experience."

Holtz said she wants Philadelphia students to have the same access they had in years past, when they could examine brushstrokes in detail, standing in front of a canvas an artist had last touched 100 years earlier.

"I was in that school for 15 years, and I had no vandalism, no theft," Holtz said of Wilson. "It created a certain ethos that made it a really special place. They knew the paintings made the place so beautiful."