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Opening Woodmere to the current Phila. art scene

From the top of the tower of the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Bill Valerio can look out over the treetops to a spectacular and far-reaching view.

From the top of the tower of the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Bill Valerio can look out over the treetops to a spectacular and far-reaching view.

It's a tantalizing sight that matches his vision for Woodmere, an institution dedicated to Philadelphia art whose dusty reins he grabbed a bit more than a year ago, leaving behind a lofty perch at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To say that he has given the old gal a kick in the sides is an understatement; under Valerio, it's been off to the races for Woodmere ever since.

"It was always kind of a closed private party in Chestnut Hill," says painter Stuart Shils, whose impressionistic work was among hundreds of pieces donated or promised to the museum in the past year by local collectors wanting to engage with the Valerio-defined Woodmere. "It had kind of an old-fogey profile."

And while you can still peek into the carriage-house studio and find bluebloods staring at easels, their Lexuses parked outside, they are only a reminder of how much Woodmere has changed.

Since the fall of 2010, Valerio, a curly-haired 47-year-old with a Yale doctorate and and a Wharton MBA, has maintained a steely focus on a mission that encompasses rigorous enthusiasm for both Philadelphia's contemporary painters (Bill Scott! Jane Piper!) and restorative paint colors (Benjamin Moore's Stuart Gold! for the walls of the faded Founder's Room).

"This is a beginning of a contemporary scene in Woodmere, something that has not been there in my lifetime," Shils said. "It's no longer where people go on Saturday or Sunday to see dead Bucks County landscapists. Now you can see work by a hipster who lives in West Philly."

The artists themselves feel it - established artists such as Scott, whose own work is exhibited there but who also donated pieces by others from his collection and has persuaded other collectors to do the same.

And the new Woodmere has left its mark on younger artists, among them Jonathan Eckel, 31, a graduate of Temple's Tyler School of Art. Eckel has a painting in the current "Flirting With Abstraction" show and found himself mesmerized by the art of generations of Philadelphia painters around it, including Equinox II by Elizabeth Osborne, 44 years his senior, which Valerio cunningly placed next to Eckel's own untitled work. (You can see the links, in color, horizontal black lines, and energy the pieces share.)

All around him, a community is taking shape, visually and literally. Conversations take place among the 102 works in the groundbreaking show (Valerio was deliberate in placement, drawing connections between teachers and students, as well as artists' aesthetic decisions).

Real ones are happening, too. Eckel says, "Since the opening of the Woodmere show, I have been connecting with some of the older and younger artists in the exhibit. I sat down with Robert Goodman just yesterday to discuss his work and learn more about his process. I also contacted Elizabeth Osborne recently because my painting happens to be hanging next to hers. She has been very kind to me and I have a date to see her studio."

He says he hadn't given Woodmere much thought before, regarding it as "a bit stuffy. It . . . seemed like it was well-rooted in a conservative artistic agenda and was never going to change. Almost everyone I've talked to agrees - the museum is full of life."

Says Shils, "We have nothing to be embarrassed about here. Philadelphia has a very important community of painters."

Says Valerio, "Philadelphia is a city of colorists. We can start to tell the story."

For Valerio, it was simple.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with Woodmere, or with its historic mission. It opened in 1940 on six acres, in a 19th-century mansion expanded by businessman and political leader Charles Knox Smith (1845-1916) to hold his art collection. Smith bequeathed the property and art to the city for a museum that would "awaken the spirit" of interest in art in the Philadelphia area.

Valerio, previously assistant director of administration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, believed a place devoted to the city's artists could be lively, but only if infused with excitement about art created recently.

"My challenge is to help people's understanding of the importance and value of the mission to the city of Philadelphia, to the thousands of artists, past and present," he said in a recent interview that included a tour, a conversation, and a riveting art lecture - a three-hour bender covering two shows, a renovated building, and a color-popping abstract vision of the future plus a nuts-and-bolts case for an emerging identity for the city's artists, with Woodmere as standard-bearer.

Yes, Pennsylvania, it didn't end with Thomas Eakins. In fact, like West Philly's Catherine Mulligan, 24, who last spring was showing at both ends of town - at the top of Germantown Avenue at Woodmere, and at the bottom of Frankford Avenue in Fishtown's Vwvoffka Gallery - it has surprising reach. "The collection tells the story of artists in Philadelphia," said Valerio. "I didn't fully understand it until I got here. The collection is its greatest asset."

The city's tiresome inferiority complex had impeded the Woodmere, he said, keeping its mission muffled and backward-looking. Mid-career artists such as Shils and Scott, shown to acclaim in New York galleries, have been missing in action here.

Since Valerio's arrival, the collection has expanded to about 3,000 works, and attendance is up 10 percent, to 45,000. "A lot of people are thrilled to find the museum is interested in the art they collect," he said.

A recent acquisition was Abstract Banquet by artist and teacher Arthur Carles, who died in 1952. The painting, a partial gift of author Fredrica Wagman, stepdaughter of its original owner, had not been exhibited since 1940. It is now the centerpiece of another Woodmere show, "Mary G.L. Hood and Philadelphia Modernism," which compellingly links teachers, painters, and others who influenced one another. "You start to get a sense of the intimate history," Valerio said.

The museum lists 47 other artists who have donated work in the last year, among them Karen Segal, 70, who promised a collection of more than 100 works to the Woodmere; 16 are in the "Abstraction" show. "Because of my age, because I wanted to keep it together, I made the decision," she said, adding that she and Valerio "just clicked. There's just a spirit about him. I've never seen Woodmere like this."

Scott, who teaches at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, said that after "Abstraction" opened, he was surprised to learn many of his students had seen it, drawn by word that people close to their age were being exhibited alongside more established painters. "I brought 10 catalogs to students of mine in the academy," he recalled. "When I came in to school, the students had already been out there. It was relevant to them."

He particularly likes a proposal that it host five shows of mid-career artists a year, complete with catalogs: "If they'd been doing that under the last regime, there'd be 150 catalogs. Those kinds of things are gold to painters."

Another donor is Dmitri Chimes, son of the late Thomas Chimes, who said, "I am certainly going to donate some of my father's work . . . just because I think they have an important collection of Philadelphia artists."

Dorothy Del Bueno, 78, a retired professor of nursing who is on the collections committee, said the changing perception of Woodmere has energized both donors and artists. "My ultimate gift keeps expanding," she said. "I keep buying things that will be part of the bequest."

Still, Valerio describes his acquisition budget as "pennies" (the museum's overall budget is $2 million). He watches at Freeman's auctions as works he covets - just one, perhaps, of 50 Bo Bartletts recently sold - become priced out of reach. (On his wish list: Horace Pippin, Jessie Willcox Smith).

Matt Palczynski, a staff lecturer at the Philadephia Museum of Art, is to take on a new post as Woodmere's new curator, and is already in on the planning for a new exhibition: "Philadelphia Realism on the Edge," featuring the work of Peter Paone. Valerio is also in the midst of placing the entire collection online at

He's also given thought and resources to renovation, putting aside for now controversial plans to expand. He's torn up carpets, pulled down fabric, repainted, and transformed the main rotunda space into a spare, stylish exhibition hall in which he stages Friday jazz concerts.

On a recent day, financial people at Woodmere were giving tours to bankers, and the boardroom was filled with works he's pondering for a future show on painters painting families - the kind of outside-the-box idea that appeals to him, from both an intellectual and a popular perspective. His canvas is ever ready.

He'd like to make the entire complex more inviting - grounds, museum, and eventually that distinctive tower, which currently is pretty much off limits. It's a little complicated to get up there, but when he does, there's almost nothing Bill Valerio can't see.