Representing Pennsylvania's "Precious Heritage": Art of the State 50

Note: The article includes many full color photos which are available to view on the Representing Pennsylvania's "Precious Heritage": Art of the State 50 Flickr album.

By Amy S. Hammond
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XLIII, Number 3 - Summer 2017

Representing Pennsylvania's Precious Heritage: Art of the State 50

Art of the State is an annual juried exhibition that has been showcasing the work of Pennsylvania's artists at The State Museum of Pennsylvania since 1968. The body of art that has been exhibited reflects half a century of creative endeavor in the Keystone State. Through the years, exhibitors have shared their ideas and engaged viewers in the categories of painting, photography, craft, sculpture and works on paper. June 2017 will mark the 50th occurrence of the event.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, he sparked a series of events that had an immediate and enduring impact on fostering the arts in communities across the country. In support of the act, Johnson remarked, "Art is a nation's most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation."

The National Endowment for the Arts was established to administer matching grants to individuals as well as nonprofit state and public organizations dedicated to creative and performing arts. Johnson furthered the call to states in his remarks when he added, "It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation's art is born."

With this momentum rooted on the national level, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton (1917–2013) launched the state initiative by signing Act No. 538 and creating the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) on October 26, 1966.

Art of the State began as an indoor exhibition displayed in conjunction with an outdoor fair. This combined event was called the Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival. PCA sponsored the first festival and many subsequent seasons. The inaugural event was announced on May 28, 1968, in an article written by L. David Harris for the Harrisburg Patriot-News. According to Harris, the idea emerged from a cultural events committee proposed by Stanley Miller (committee chairman), Henry Kennedy (Harrisburg Area Chamber of Commerce) and Dean Gross (Harrisburg Public Library). Harris outlined the organizers' three goals: attract 100,000 people, inaugurate a local arts council, and establish the first of an annual arts festival. The second goal was realized with the immediate creation of the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council. Charged with organization, the council collaborated with the museum to open the event on Memorial Day weekend. The partnership was a natural fit for the freshmen organizations. The souvenir booklet contained an acknowledgment titled "Tribute to a Building," which ended with an affirmation: "True, a festival of sorts could have been staged elsewhere. But this Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival could have materialized only in the William Penn Memorial Museum [the name of The State Museum building from 1965 to 1984]."

In the new State Museum building, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) made an early and lasting commitment to the arts. The original State Museum had been established in 1905 and was later housed next to the Pennsylvania State Capitol in what is now the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building. Some of the museum's earliest acquisitions were works of art. When the collection and staff outgrew the building, PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens (1904-74) led plans to build the current State Museum and Archives Complex across North Street from the Capitol. Stevens' intentions were outlined in an article by Bob McCurdy that appeared in the Harrisburg Evening News on March 23, 1964. McCurdy described Stevens' goal for the museum to "become a splendid magnet, attracting great artists and performers, broadening the Pennsylvanian's understanding and joy of life."

Plans were confirmed by the 1965 Annual Report, which announced that the first floor of the new building would host a "continuous display" of changing art exhibits. The museum's inaugural exhibition was a large installation of paintings by Brandywine Valley artist N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945). During an address given at a celebratory dinner, Governor Scranton solidified the museum's position by stating, "Our new state museum, with its extensive facilities, can serve as the focal point and ‘launching pad' for state-wide programs in the arts." This momentum was reflected in both programing and acquisitions. An exhibition of artwork by Lancaster artist Charles Demuth (1883–1935) followed in 1966. Within the first two years of the new State Museum building's existence, staff collected art of 20th-century Pennsylvania artists with international acclaim, including Wyeth, Demuth and Horace Pippin (1888–1946).

While The State Museum staff collected art from renowned artists, the early arts festival focused on the local artist community. An ad placed in 1968 for the juried portion invited only artists from Cumberland, Perry and Dauphin counties. The juried art exhibition was featured in the museum galleries, while the outdoor fair with an extensive program of performers, artists and artisans was hosted on the museum's plaza. A 1968 summary of festival plans listed 50 participating organizations, including an estimated 600 people performing. The enormous amount of coordination that went into organizing both events took great cooperation and endurance. The rarity and significance of the long-standing partnership between The State Museum and the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council reflects the dedication of the institutions and participants. Their work to support the arts and unite the community became increasingly more important as society neared the end of the 1960s.

The nation was experiencing great turmoil at the time of the inaugural festival. It was a year of civil rights protests and riots, dissent was high over America's involvement in the Vietnam War, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April. PCA was aware of the part it played in offering an outlet. Its Annual Report of 1968 included this statement: "As one recalls the past year of assassinations, civil riots, student uprisings, war, an increase in our crime rate and basic worldwide unrest, it is rewarding to know that many people, previously unreached ... spent peaceful and emotionally rewarding evenings at one of Pennsylvania's eighteen local arts festivals."

The following year, museum and festival staff launched the Purchase Award program, which continues today and has enduring value for Pennsylvanians. For this unique initiative, a guest judge or State Museum executive staff member selects a work of art and offers a monetary award to purchase it for the museum's permanent collection. Since all artists have a Pennsylvania connection through their residence, the Purchase Award is chosen based on artistic merit and the needs of the existing collection. The selection must gain the approval of the Collections Committee, a panel of curators and scholars with the responsibility of finalizing suggested additions. The Purchase Award collection built through the years represents the diverse heritage, rich history and creative pursuits of Pennsylvania artists. It is often reflective of the social climate of the year in which it was chosen.

Five decades of Art of the State exhibitions have featured more than 6,600 works of art. The artists' inspirations are diverse given the passage of time and the unique life experiences of each individual; however, because all artists are Pennsylvania residents, links are revealed through the context of a shared environment.

Pennsylvania's rich art history is accessible through many museums, camera clubs, historical institutions and artistic organizations. The prestigious art schools, such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), continue to teach technical skills and encourage artists to explore alternate means of expression. Through such organizations, artists have access to information and a large community of colleagues.

Each Art of the State exhibition features a mix of traditional and contemporary styles. The Realist paintings submitted on a yearly basis serve as a reminder of the Keystone State's artistic past. This style often portrays Pennsylvania's people, who are presented in an annual collection of portrait submissions. A second traditional genre, landscape, is represented through paintings and photographs. Artists also build upon an artisan heritage, including stoneware traditions of Native Americans and 19th-century potters of Greensboro, Greene County; early furniture making from Philadelphia; and women's fiber crafts that cross race and social class. Many of these creations were historically considered functional in nature, but contemporary trends like the Fiber Arts Movement adapted the media and some of the techniques to inspire contemporary works of art.

While paying tribute to traditional styles and mediums, Pennsylvanians have also established an important legacy in modern art history. The modern art exhibitions hosted by institutions like PAFA have emboldened generations of artists. Four world-renowned contemporary artists - Andy Warhol (1928–87), Franz Kline (1910–62), Keith Haring (1958–90) and Jeff Koons (b. 1955) - have roots in Pennsylvania. The Pop Art style mastered by Warhol is often represented in Art of the State, as are contemporary concepts like on-site installations.

The first artwork selected for a Purchase Award was accessioned in 1969. Edward Saffell received the honor for his etching Point of View. While Saffell's work is representational with the psychology of Surrealism, two subsequent Purchase Awards reflect a common 1960s mode of expression. Richard Morgan's painting Hymn for Tomorrow and Rita Kavolis' print Childhood Structures explore the emotional effects of nonrepresentational imagery common in Abstract Expressionism. Often considered the first American modern art movement, Abstract Expressionism emphasized pure formal elements like line, color, gesture, shape and texture to evoke thoughts and emotions for the creator and the viewer.

The institution of the Purchase Award program reflected the museum staff's desire to enhance the art collection and programing. Two years after the first Purchase Award accession, the museum organized a statewide exhibition that had an immediate impact on the parameters of the festival's indoor exhibit. In 1971 the museum and council cohosted the Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival in the galleries and plaza of The State Museum from May 17 until June 6. Only six days after the close of the festival, the museum opened a separate exhibition, Pennsylvania '71, which was described by the Titusville Herald as "the first state-sponsored, juried art exhibition in the history of Pennsylvania." This was the first time that the museum departed from the tricounty restrictions and invited artists from across the state to participate. This move reflects the museum staff's recognition of Pennsylvania's artistic wealth. One of the art jurors was the Honorable K. Leroy Irvis, the first African American speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and also an artist. Organizers invited a group of acclaimed artists, including modern furniture designer and sculptor Harry Bertoia (1915–78), to exhibit with the juried artwork. PHMC director Stevens acknowledged the importance of a statewide exhibition by stating, "I can think of nothing that could contribute more to recognizing and stimulating Pennsylvania art and artists at the grass roots level." Although Pennsylvania '71 was not repeated, the museum staff observed the importance of including artists from a larger geographic area for the annual indoor exhibition, and the statewide focus was soon absorbed by the Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival.

Six artworks from Pennsylvania '71 were accessioned into the permanent art collection. Theodore Singer's Drift IV is an example of Minimalism, a movement that became popular in the 1970s. Minimalists investigated formal principles and began adapting a "form follows function" philosophy for a two-dimensional canvas. The desire to show the true, flat nature of canvas led to the use of thinner paint and pure geometric shapes.

The festival was a platform for sharing contemporary artistic ideas, but in the early 1970s artists' political statements caused controversy. In 1972 festival organizers cancelled a Harrisburg Area Community College production of the protest play Viet Rock and tried to remove a painting about the Vietnam War from the exhibition. While organizers hoped to avoid conflict, their actions only fueled the tensions. James R. Dorris, a Vietnam War veteran and acting press secretary to Governor Milton J. Shapp, wrote a letter to the editor of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which appeared in the June 3 edition, criticizing the decisions: "I realize that many Americans would rather ignore the grim realities of Vietnam. However, the art of a society is a product of all factors existing in that society and, to a certain extent, a reaction to those realities, whether pleasant or outrageous, which undeniably exist." With his statement, Dorris articulated the festival's important role as a forum for Pennsylvanians to tell their stories. Museum and festival staff later realized the value of acknowledging the Vietnam War's impact on Pennsylvania's culture. In 1988 Stephen March was awarded a Purchase Award for Almost Forgotten (Going Home), a pastel inspired by black-and-white news photographs that portrays the devastation and loss of the Vietnam War.

The Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival continued to grow into the 1970s and 1980s. Attendance reached 63,000 people in 1977 and the festival organizers' goal of 100,000 visitors was achieved by 1979, less than 10 years after it was set. The State Museum and Greater Harrisburg Arts Council endured uncooperative weather, staffing changes and budget restrictions, but succeeded in maintaining a similar model into the early 1980s. An important change came in 1989, when the museum and arts council introduced the title Art of the State for the indoor juried exhibition.

The 1980s and 1990s also brought significant change for Pennsylvania artists. The internet was born and the digital age had an impact on the artists and the juried exhibition. The 1986 festival was supported by Cellular One, "the Car Telephone Company," and in recent years technology has advanced to the point where artists can take photographs with their smart phones. While all media have been influenced by the information and communities available on the internet, photography has a completely different component than it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Digital photography allows for instant editing and manipulation.

Digital media also has had a significant effect on the organization of the festival. In the early years of the exhibition, artists transported original works of art to the judges for review. Anything that was not accepted had to be retrieved by the artist before the opening. This system limited the submissions, because large works of art were difficult to transport and some artists were unable to make the journey. Slides and the CDs that followed allowed for submission-by-mail capabilities. All artists now submit digital photographs of their artwork online. This has provided greater accessibility for the artists.

In the mid-1990s artists addressed the vast transformation of Pennsylvania's urban and rural environments. Pennsylvania entered a postindustrial era in the 1950s and transitioned from a coal- and steel-driven economy to new industries like computers. In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania artists like Aaron Harry Gorson (1872–1933) painted buildings of the booming coal production as a testament to American prosperity. When the facilities closed, the structures became dilapidated and stood as a reminder of the difficult changes that resulted in job loss and economic depression.

The footprints left by the fading steel industries were recorded by Cynthia Cooley and Carol Front, two artists selected for Purchase Awards in 1994 and 1996 respectively. As her subject Cynthia Cooley chose the Holmstead Steel Works in Pittsburgh. It was the scene of a violent strike in 1892 and closed in 1986. Titling her work Post-Industrial Pittsburgh, Cooley focused on the dilapidated buildings but included the Cathedral of Learning on the left side to symbolize Pittsburgh's revitalization.

Carol Front photographed Abandoned Industry: Pennsylvania #1 at Standard Steel in Burnham, Mifflin County. Standard Steel opened as Freedom Forge in 1795 and has undergone significant changes since then, including a buyout in 1989. Front's photograph, taken in 1996, depicts a shuttered portion of the facility. The graffiti on the wall was created by former employees and it serves as a reminder of the lives of the people affected by the ebb and flow of industry. Standard Steel is still in operation and the company continues to address the fast-paced changes of the 21st century.

The shifting social environment also has been addressed in the exhibition. Over the past 40 years, artists and activists have worked to acknowledge the creations of individuals from diverse backgrounds. For the 1982 season, the Greater Harrisburg Arts Festival was replaced by Expressions of Excellence, an exhibition and festival that honored African American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian artists and performers. PCA and other organizations sponsored the event and The State Museum hosted it. An introduction in the brochure stated that the purpose of the festival was to "provide visibility, increased interest and a new collective approach to promoting professional minority artists." Expressions of Excellence was one step towards the recognition and exhibition of artists from minority communities. For the 1983 festival season, the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council tried to appeal to a broader audience. The program stated their intentions: "Recently there has been a movement throughout the country to move beyond serving a limited number of arts organizations to find ways to mobilize all cultural resources in a community in order to make the arts a part of the lives of a larger group of people." It continued, "the Council is concerned with both the individual and the community."

The State Museum and festival staff recognized the need to include personal histories and artists with diverse backgrounds. Artists of the 1990s and 2000s sought to tell direct stories of their own personal experiences and addressed race, identity and culture. The museum added their creations through the Purchase Awards.

Fred Danziger received a Purchase Award in 1991 for Archaic Memory, his photorealistic depiction of the past. The portrait of Ralph Malatesta, Danziger's friend and fellow professor at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, shows Malatesta positioned at his office window revealing the cityscape. The Brownie camera on the desk and the trompe l'oeil photograph of a 1952 Oldsmobile in the bottom left corner were included as references to the power of memory and the monumental importance of personal histories.

Tina Williams Brewer used her own unique style and voice to represent the lives of African Americans in Yo Bloodline, a story quilt that was the 1997 Purchase Award winner. In her artist statement, she wrote, "My hope is to bring a new vision to an ancient story. . . . Each quilt I create is a celebration of the African American heritage. I am passionate about giving dignity to the human suffering of a stolen people." The women with outstretched arms at the bottom of the quilt support a tree of life that represents community. The men above fight in tribal battle and modern warfare, while the men in baseball hats at the top endure modern struggles. The white string of sequins that begins at the bottom and moves upward symbolizes the ability of African American women to protect the tree of life throughout history and into the present, thus sustaining the bloodline. The materials are from various sources, including neckties that belonged to John Brewer I, the first African American school administrator in Pittsburgh and Brewer's father-in-law.

Sun Young Kang also shared her heritage and personal experience through Memories Unfolded, a shadow book that received the 2011 Purchase Award. The cutout paper designs Kang created were inspired by traditional Korean rice paper doors she saw in her family home. Kang remembers seeing her grandmother's shadow cast on the doors and this book was made in tribute to her. One inside page is printed with a poem and a second includes an explanation: "The door in this book is a metaphor of the invisible path to connect me now and my grandmother who left this world."

While Sun Young Kang shared a very personal experience, York resident Carol Oldenburg created Day of Remembrance to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a tragedy that deeply impacted people around the world. While Oldenburg was returning home after volunteering at a 9/11 memorial program in 2011, she noticed the beauty of storm clouds over Mount Rose Cemetery in York. She stopped to take photographs of the landscape and then began painting as soon as she arrived home to capture the scene. "I wanted the deep emotion and feeling of the day to come through in the painting," she said. Oldenburg painted a scene that she personally witnessed, but she shared an emotional experience with all who were affected by the 9/11 attacks.

Within the past five years, the festival has undergone additional changes. In 2012 the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council was dissolved and the festival operations were absorbed into Jump Street, a nonprofit organization in Harrisburg. Jump Street, founded in 1978 as The People Place, remains a strong partner for Art of the State. Its mission is "to use the arts to develop educational and economic opportunities for all ages." Jump Street manages the online entry registration, secures jurors, and sponsors the opening reception, and The State Museum designs and installs the exhibition.

The annual awards, many sponsored by Jump Street, are a great benefit to Pennsylvania's arts community. In the last 25 years, artists have received more than $140,000 in merit-based award monies. Beginning in 2007 artist Shirley Zampelli Sturtz-Davis established an additional award in memory of her husband, an artist and professor who taught at Shippensburg University for more than 16 years. His legacy continues through the William D. Davis Memorial Award for Drawing.

Jump Street still organizes the outdoor festival. It is now called ArtsFest of Greater Harrisburg and has been located at Riverfront Park since 1992. The 2017 festivities will include 250 artists and artisans, FilmFest, KidsFest and multiple stages of entertainment.

Art of the State continues to thrive each year at The State Museum. The 2016 numbers show that submissions have almost tripled since 1987, when artists entered 600 works of art. In the most recent exhibition, jurors chose 122 artworks from a selection of 1,700 creations. Pennsylvania artists from 34 counties represented the breadth of the state. Applications are posted in December of every year, and the exhibition opens the following June. Artists are currently uploading submissions for the 50th Art of the State in 2017. During this hallmark anniversary, it is important to note the enormous changes that have occurred over the preceding 50 years and consider which of today's stories will be told by artists and preserved for future generations.

Amy S. Hammond is a curator with the Collections Advancement Project at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.