Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Brief Intro to the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley

Nine days ago I paid my first visit to the Allentown Art Museum of Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. It was a wonderful surprise and I will certainly be back. It's a very nice museum with an extensive collection of more than 17,000 pieces in its permanent collection.

Museums like this serve an important place in our culture as they preserve our heritage. The value of many of these paintings, sculptures and other items is such that they cannot be treated with the carelessness of an estate auction. Think about it. If you were born of wealth and your parents have a collection of works by European Old Masters or Renaissance era oil paintings and sculpture, what do you do with these things? Well, many such collections are preserved by museums so they can be shared. But it takes space, time, professional handling, and a funding commitment.

John Singer Sargent, Head of a Young Woman
The Allentown Art Museum, founded by painter and critic Walter Baum, is less than 80 years old, but has gained a reputation for the work it houses and the care with which it selects exhibitions. For example, later this year they will be sharing Toulous-Latrec and His World (June 2-September 1).

The museum is housed in a spacious, architecturally appealing building. The first floor, where all the museum's collection is displayed, seems to stretch endlessly. To my delight they allow non-flash photography so one can bring memories home with them. There were rooms of various sizes, each containing work of a similar period. American artists are well represented, but the room filled with European painting and art was impressive. Moreso now that I have learned, thanks to Robert Hughes' American Visions film series, how these European collections came to be. It appears to have been a fad amongst the Vanderbilt era for rich American swashbucklers to take advantage of the excessive quantities of art in Europe on the market at fire sale prices. I first became aware of this backstory while visiting the Ringling Museum in Sarasota where the youngest of the Ringling brothers not only brought art but an entire theater from the outskirts of Venice.

I personally like the unexpected surprises when you visit a museum like this for the first time. In a room of modern art there were two Rauschenberg pieces that immediately captured my eye. What a rush for students who found inspiration in the modern era. Similarly, while in Sarasota I discovered a pair of Duchamp paintings I'd never seen. It dawned on me that these artists had produced far more works than what little makes it into books or onto public walls in their brief lifetimes. Collections like these house many such gems.

Classic still life.
The special exhibits are shared on the second floor of the museum. On this floor no cameras permitted, so I have no photos from the very interesting special collections I saw there. In one room there was a fashion exhibit called Fabulous Flappers: Fashion from the Ellie Laubner Collection, which will be coming down next week, April 14. Fashion seems to have become increasingly recognized as an art form, from fabric designs to clothing styles.

An exhibition of Haitian Art from the Rodale Family Collection was especially interesting to me. There were 40 paintings from select Haitian artists, quite striking for their bright colors. The origin of the collection is as interesting as the work. In the 1930's J.I. Rodale bought an abandoned farm in Eastern Pennsylvania because he was fascinated with organic farming to improve his health and the health of his family. He eventually became a publisher of magazines on this topic which expanded into a range of themes, generating wealth in the process as this message gained importance. In an effort to aid some of the people in the underdeveloped country of Haiti purchased artwork there and brought it to his home and the offices of Rodale Press.

There was also a marvelous Contemporary Glass Collection will be on display till the end of April and a very cool exhibit called The Tools (by Stephen Althouse) will be showing thru May 12. It costs twelve dollars to visit the museum, with discounts for students and seniors. It's free to the public on Sundays.

Did I already say I was impressed? I'll share more images this coming week on Wordless Wednesday. For more information visit their website at

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