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Atwater Kent reopening in spring with sharper focus

Not since February 2009 has a museumgoer set foot in the Atwater Kent Museum to take in an exhibit.

Charles Croce, new head of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, stands on a large floor map of the region.
Charles Croce, new head of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, stands on a large floor map of the region.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Not since February 2009 has a museumgoer set foot in the Atwater Kent Museum to take in an exhibit.

In fact, the Atwater Kent, the city's history museum - long thought of as the city's attic - exists only in memory.

It has been replaced by what supporters believe will be, when it reopens in spring, a sharper institution, more focused on Philadelphia and its stories, and more engaged with the city that supports it - financially and otherwise.

It also will be an institution with facilities to care for its extensive collection, thanks to an ongoing $5.8 million renovation project.

Now rechristened the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the museum has also just named a new executive director and chief executive.

Charles Croce, 64, known in Philadelphia cultural circles as former head of communications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Kimmel Center, will take over at the history museum next month.

Like all his immediate predecessors, Croce has his work cut out for him. The city-owned Atwater Kent, in a John Haviland-designed Greek Revival building at 15 S. Seventh St., is chronically underfunded. City subsidies are down to $240,000 a year, from $300,000 five years ago.

And the museum has long suffered from a serious image problem: virtual invisibility.

Croce will have to cope with another issue as well.

As reported in The Inquirer in February, the museum has been selling off bits of its collection, in part to pay for some of its renovation costs.

Viki Sand, who retired in June after eight years leading the museum, said in February that the sales were extensively reviewed, and conducted in accordance with the ethical guidelines of the American Association of Museums and American Association for State and Local Museums, which state that sales can be justified if funds are used for other acquisitions or for direct care and preservation of the collection.

Sand acknowledged that the more stringent guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which call for use of proceeds for additional acquisitions only, were not met.

The Atwater Kent is "not an art museum," she said.

At that time, one Kent painting, a Raphaelle Peale still life, sold for $700,000 to a private buyer. Part of the proceeds were targeted to cover renovation costs. Sand argued that the renovation would benefit care and preservation of the entire collection.

Croce said Monday that recent reports that funds from the sales paid for such amenities as carpet were inaccurate.

"It doesn't go to operating or operations," he said. "There are records. Of course, there are records. Nothing should be done in secret. Our institution has an open policy."

A list of sales made through Christie's auction house in New York indicates that the museum sold 56 works of art and artifacts for about $2.8 million between October 2007 and September 2010. They include the Raphaelle Peale, plus a number of advertising figures, such as cigar-store Indians purchased in the mid-20th century; a painted cut-tin Cow Trade sign; a carved wooden whale; a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci by Charles Willson Peale, Raphaelle's father; a portrait of DeWitt Clinton by Rembrandt Peale, Raphaelle's brother; and nine portraits of George Washington.

David Rasner, a longtime Kent board member, said Monday that there was still plenty of George Washington at the museum, including Charles Willson Peale's 1772 portrait; Rembrandt Peale's image from life, 1795; Gilbert Stuart's "Athenaeum" portrait, c. 1798; a Chinese Export reverse painting on glass after the Stuart from the early 1800s, and a full-length finished 1784 portrait by Joseph Wright along with his 1783 study for the portrait.

"All the George Washingtons deaccessioned were the lesser George Washingtons," Rasner said - redundant, in poor condition, or unrelated to Philadelphia. (A portrait by Thomas Sully sold for $9,000 in September; another Washington by Adolf Ulrik Wertmuller fetched $55,000 at the same time - by far the most paid for any Washington.)

Sand said this year that the sales did not represent a "fire sale" and that the institution was "building for our future."

At the time of the Inquirer report in February, no critical voices were raised, but elsewhere in the country, such institutions as Fisk and Brandeis Universities were criticized for their own proposals to sell artwork to fund capital expenses or even operations.

In Philadelphia, Jefferson University, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have all faced strong criticism over the sale of art.

Chris Davis, Atwater Kent acting director, said some of the sale money had been allocated to an acquisition fund.

She said the museum had not had functioning climate controls in its main building for years, and works in storage had moved from one city-leased warehouse to another.

But a new dedicated facility in East Falls has finally enabled the museum to control the environment for its collection of 100,000 objects, artworks, documents, and prints.

This has been particularly important since the museum more than a decade ago became the steward of artifacts once belonging to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Kim Sajet, head of the historical society, noted that the auctioned Raphaelle Peale still life and several other works sold by the Atwater Kent once belonged to her institution. In the 1990s, however, the historical society decided to focus completely on its archival materials and transferred about 10,000 items to the Atwater Kent.

In culling its collection, Sajet said, the Atwater Kent has "done a very thorough and great job" of winnowing.

The historical society receives 50 percent of proceeds from sales of works originally in its collection, she acknowledged, which goes directly into a fund restricted to care and conservation of society archives. "We think [Atwater Kent officials] have done a yeoman's job of looking after the collection," she said.

Kent officials said deaccessioning was ongoing, declining to specify what might be on the block.

Croce certainly does not argue that such sales raise legitimate questions. But he says the Atwater Kent, long a repository of just about anything, needs both to focus its collection and to house it in a safe environment.

Davis, the interim director, noted that the museum had been unable to mount exhibitions with loaned materials because institutions were unwilling to place their artifacts at risk in the Kent's erratic environment.

Now, Croce said, the museum will be able to borrow. And with a new focus on the city, he hopes to reconnect with Philadelphia residents - a gallery curated by neighborhood groups, a sports-focused rotating exhibition.

Until the museum fully reopens, a series of monthly talks - Jerry Blavat on doo-wop, Amy Finkel on antique samplers, the chocolatiers from Shane's Candies on sweets - is being scheduled.

Calling the museum a "work in progress," Rasner said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. It's not going to be 'that dusty old museum' anymore."

Croce said partnerships with area institutions would help build programming and funding. Changing exhibitions will reintroduce visitors to the museum. Issues regarding sales will be addressed openly. He said transparency in operations would be key.

"This is the moment," Croce said. "This institution is poised to reaffirm itself."