The slumping economy has provoked retrenchment at some American art museums, but not in Doylestown. The James A. Michener Art Museum, founded in 1988 on the site of a former prison, continues to prosper.

First-year attendance of 11,500 climbed to nearly 75,000 by 1998 and to more than 133,000 last year. On Sept. 12, the museum expects to open yet another addition, the third major expansion in its brief history.

As a prelude to that milestone, the Michener has assembled an exhibition that celebrates 20 years of institutional collecting.

Over two decades, the museum has acquired, through gift and purchase, about 2,200 objects. The show contains about 120 of these, less than six percent of the total. However, this fraction not only includes the choicest items, it also communicates what this museum is about.

The show also suggests that the Michener has been successful because it has become firmly rooted in its community, assiduously nurturing local involvement by attuning its collecting and programming to its region and its audience.

Except for two special exhibitions, the show occupies all of the galleries. Regular visitors will recognize many of the exhibits, either because they're regularly on view or because they have been presented in special exhibitions. Yet even those visitors will discover new things and become more aware of what makes this collection special.

For first-time or infrequent visitors, the experience is both fresher and more of a revelation. The collection's profile, particularly its focus on art created in Bucks County and the Philadelphia region, emerges with maximum clarity and impact.

The museum has produced a commemorative book about this anniversary that contains piquant commentaries and reminiscences about collection-building, curating, and regional artists by museum director Bruce Katsiff and curators Brian H. Peterson, Constance Kimmerle, and Erika Jaeger-Smith.

The book provides supporting context for the exhibition, which is organized thematically. One gallery focuses on the human figure, another on modernism and contemporary art, a third on the Pennsylvania impressionsts, and still another on furniture.

Visitors not only encounter exemplary works but also gradually absorb the museum's collecting strategy and how individual works help to realize it. Even more important, one becomes aware of how major gifts and key acquisitions have made the collection distinct and distinguished.

For most of its history, the Michener has concentrated on the art of its region, especially Pennsylvania impressionism and the art colony in New Hope.

This core interest is both appropriate and popular with the public. Beyond that, it helps to anchor the museum in its setting. The landscapes in this genre, painted by local artists with national reputations, depict familiar, and in some cases, timeless locales and vistas that people inhabit and drive through every day.

The impressionist paintings are featured as a permanent display in the Lenfest gallery, the museum's most imposing space. The centerpiece is a large lunette mural, A Wooded Watershed by Daniel Garber, that the museum rescued from an auditorium at the Mount Alto campus of Pennsylvania State University.

Katsiff's account of how the museum discovered this neglected masterpiece, acquired it with the help of State Sen. Craig Lewis, and restored it to prime condition is an inspiring example of enlightened and purposeful collecting. Garber is one of the most acclaimed of the regional impressionists, and this 22-foot-wide panorama is a magnificent tribute to his talent.

The Lenfest gallery contains a canonical selection of regional impressionism, topped by three Edward W. Redfield gems - The Burning of Center Bridge, The Trout Brook, and Early Spring.

Other luminaries such as Charles Rosen, Harry Leith-Ross, George W. Sotter, and Fern I. Coppedge reveal the breadth of talent that made New Hope a center of landscape painting.

In the Byers gallery, the museum presents a selection of figurative paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Figuration is another prominent thread in the regional art tapestry. The examples on view, typified by Ben Solowey's portrait of his wife and Joseph T. Pearson Jr.'s portrait of his twin daughters, are first-rate.

The Commonwealth gallery houses examples of more contemporary work, but nothing on view is shockingly radical. As the Lenfest and Byers galleries indicate, the Michener collection is generally conservative in style and mood.

There is some abstraction, but realism like Diane Burko's Volcano From the Air and Randall Exon's Beach House tends to predominate. Celia Reisman's suburban scene, Angel Awning, offers a lushly colored and geometrically harmonious balance between realism and abstraction.

Photography has been another important collecting area; the show includes prints by Emmet Gowin, Susan Fenton, David Graham, Stephen Perloff, and Ricardo Barros, whose powerful portrait of the late Isaac Witkin complements the sculptor's imposing bronze, Waif's Anchors, in the museum's entry courtyard.

Now back to the Lenfest gallery, because it illustrates a fundamental fact about collection-building, one that has made the museum's first 20 years so fruitful. Katsiff observes in the book's foreword that "[c]ollections are built one object at a time." And so they are, for the most part. But once in a while a museum will receive a large donation that elevates the collection to a higher level.

The gift in 1999 by Marguerite and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest of 59 impressionist paintings lifted the Michener to top rank for this movement and made it a place of pilgrimage for Pennsylvania landscapes.

Earlier, in 1992, Kenneth Leiby, a New Hope physician, donated 14 paintings by major impressionist figures. One of these pictures, Henry B. Snell's The Barber's Shop, depicts Leiby's house, now a New Hope inn and restaurant.

Also in that year, author James A. Michener, who grew up in Doylestown, established a $500,000 endowment on the condition that the museum attract at least 40 museum-quality works as gifts during a one-year period. The response from the community was overwhelming - 55 donors contributed 189 works by 42 Bucks County artists.

Such an impressive level of community engagement, embodied in "An Evolving Legacy," translates into two decades of physical and audience growth, a varied and attractive exhibition program, and a collection that demonstrates the vital role played by regional museums in the state's cultural life.

Art: Still Growing

"An Evolving Legacy" continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through Jan. 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission through Sept. 11: $6.50 general, $6 for seniors, $4.50 for students and visitors 6 to 18. Beginning Sept. 12: $10 general, $9 for seniors, $7.50 for college students with ID, $5 for visitors 6 through 18. Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenerart

museum.org.

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Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.