(DIANA BURGWYN is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in the arts.)
In a city of museums, Penn's Arthur Ross Gallery has earned its own identity, thanks to a relentless founding director.
Dr. Dilys Pegler Winegrad, '70 Gr, director and curator of the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Ross Gallery, was chatting some years back with an individual who, like her, served on a committee to assess potential Rhodes Scholars.
"I don't think anybody should graduate from the University of Pennsylvania who has never been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art," said the colleague emphatically.
"Ever been to the Arthur Ross Gallery?" Winegrad asked. She met a blank face.
"Ever heard of the Arthur Ross Gallery?"
Winegrad had seen that look of non-recognition before. She professes to be somewhat inured to the slight yet admits to being somewhat annoyed as well. She has spent the better part of her time in recent years trying to overcome the gallery's anonymity.
To a large extent she has succeeded. The Arthur Ross Gallery has earned a quiet but solid reputation in the world of arts, both in the Penn community (board chairman Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, '50 C, dubbed it the University's "little gem") and in the art world beyond. The Philadelphia Inquirer generally reviews its offerings, and even The Daily Pennsylvanian occasionally takes notice. The gallery's location, in the prime space of the renovated Fisher Fine Arts Library (formerly the Furness Building), has been an added attraction to visitors.
In Ross exhibits: from left,
"Blue Gate" by Maurice Lowe; "Burnt Stump and Wild Rose" by Neil Welliver; "Thomas Joyce, Traveler's Encampment, Finglas, Ireland," by Mary Ellen Mark; and "Picking Up" by Kerstin Engman, plus the poster for the show that inspired the gallery.
Kitty Carlisle Hart, the actress and singer who headed the New York State Council on the Arts for many years and received the National Medal of Arts in 1991, clearly knows her field-and the Arthur Ross Gallery, whose friends committee she chairs. Hart says: "I have never seen anything in a private gallery that was better. It's inventive, it's varied, and it's first-class."
A look at this year's six scheduled shows reveals why she might say so. First, an exhibit of fifty drawings and paintings of the popular New Yorker cover artist, Rumanian-born Saul Steinberg; next, forty-four nineteenth-century French paintings by artists from Corot to Monet, Van Gogh to Utrillo; then more than a hundred works encompassing thirty years of remarkable achievement by photographer Mary Ellen Mark, '62 FA, '64 ASC, '94 Hon.
This summer, "Confronting Cancer Through Art" takes center-stage, a moving and sometimes shocking compilation of works (from knitted socks to multi-media installations) by people who have faced this disease themselves or through loved ones (a portfolio appeared in the May/June Gazette). And coming this fall, a collection of prints by artist Romare Bearden and weavings from the Maghreb region of North Africa. In sum, you have a typically diversified year at the Arthur Ross Gallery.
Considering that the gallery has been in existence only since February 1983 and that its staff comprises what Winegrad refers to as "two-point-something" people, the exhibitions-some 65 in total-make for a pretty impressive showing, particularly in light of the fact that Ross has no holdings of its own. Rather, it exists as a venue to display the holdings of others, whether they come from the University or from the outside.
The Ross Gallery has originated shows, and it sometimes has been a selected stop for a traveling show. In latter cases, whenever possible, additions or changes make it the gallery's own, as when Mark updated her traveling retrospective to comprise thirty, instead of twenty-five, years; she selected and printed ten of her more recent works for the Ross.
The Ross Gallery traces its origins to the 1970's with a show of first-edition prints of Francisco de Goya's Caprichos, loaned to the University by the Arthur Ross Foundation. Held on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library, the show was coordinated by Winegrad, then an assistant to President Martin Meyerson for special projects. Philanthropist Arthur Ross, '31 W, 92 Hon, subsequently contributed funds for the renovation of space in what was then called the Furness Building to create a University art gallery.
With the opening of that space in 1983, he lent the University a larger collection of Goya prints, "The Disasters of War," and a series on bullfighting. Dr. Janis A. Tomlinson, '80 Gr, an art historian and Goya specialist, wrote the gallery's first real catalogue; Winegrad edited it. When the Furness Building as a whole was renovated in 1988, the Ross Gallery closed for eighteen months, with exhibits temporarily held in the Kamin Gallery in Van Pelt Library.
A reopening gala was held in May 1989, with an exhibit of 135 prints from a fine edition of etchings of Rome by the 18th century printmaker Giambattista Piranesi. The exhibit was organized by Dr. Malcolm Campbell, emeritus professor of art history, and students in a graduate art history seminar, and it traveled to Rome, Paris, and London.
In its 13 years of existence, the Arthur Ross Gallery has cooperated with institutions around the world, drawing on a broad variety of media and bringing in everything from a series of giant canvases depicting "The Story of Matzah : The History of the Jews" by Larry Rivers, to a fragment of the Parthenon.
The latter object was featured in the 1993 exhibit "The Parthenon: Glory on the Acropolis," guest-curated by Dr. Lothar Haselberger, associate professor of the history of art and specialist on ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Based upon drawings and architectural research by Manolis Korres, who directed the Parthenon restoration, the displayed items included ancient Greek vases from the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as plaster casts of the Parthenon's pediment decorations, on loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The exhibition was held in conjunction with an international conference on curvature in classical architecture, held at Penn.
Arthur Ross Gallery has a knack of turning the word esoteric into enlightenment.
This kind of show, according to Winegrad, is precisely what the Arthur Ross Gallery is about: 'We are doing and should be doing esoteric things that are of interest to our faculty researchers and our students. Much of the subject matter we deal with is found only at universities. On the other hand-and I say this with considerable pride-the sort of shows we've done recently, like the French paintings, could have also been organized in a small gallery of a major museum."
But why a University gallery in the first place, in a city so rich in museums as Philadelphia? A first and obvious reason is to show the University's own holdings, most of which were obtained through bequests and benefactions. From portraits to sculpture, rare books to wall hangings, furniture to antique clocks, these are a proud part of the institution's heritage. In one configuration, they made possible the 1990 exhibition "The Intellectual World of Benjamin Franklin," which celebrated Penn's 250th anniversary; all of the University's 12 schools contributed items (as did virtually every library in the city). Another group of Penn-held objects made up the 1994 show "Constructing Penn," held on the occasion of the inauguration of Dr. Judith Rodin, '66 CW, as University president.
The Ross Gallery also affords the University an opportunity to honor its own faculty members-artists whose work should be shown to students and others on campus. Exhibitions have featured landscape painter Neil Welliver, photographer and mixed-media artist Becky Young, and sculptors Maurice Lowe and Robert Engman (and even an accomplished student, Engman's daughter Kerstin, '90 GFA).
Best of all, however, is the opportunity to integrate exhibits with the University's academic curriculum. "Confronting Cancer Through Art" is sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center-in Winegrad's view, perfectly matching the gallery's strength with a powerful outreach program (education is part of the cancer center's mission) and illustrating how independent areas of a major university can be brought to bear on a subject of common interest. This was the Ross Gallery's first juried show, meaning that works shown were chosen by an expert committee after a nationwide call for submissions.
The recent "City into Country" exhibition is an even more extended example. Late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century French paintings were culled from permanent collections belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and might, at first glance, appear to have been superfluous. They were not. Under the guidance of guest curator Christopher Riopelle of the art museum, six graduate students in art history from Penn and Bryn Mawr College undertook a survey of the chosen paintings and proposed interpretations of the major themes addressed by advanced French artists of the era.
In organizing the show thematically (nature as refuge, images of labor, suburb and countryside, for instance), the students depicted a France that, at a time of rapid mechanization, was also strongly nostalgic for the past, its artists re-embracing the serenity and calm of a countryside that was being irrevocably transformed. Thus the exhibit ended up not only an art show but a portrait of a nation in transformation. The students composed the narratives that became the wall texts and worked on the design arrangement of the exhibit space. During the exhibit, a scholarly symposium on the making of French landscapes was held at Penn, in cooperation with Penn's French Institute for Culture and Technology.
Despite some pre-opening grumbles from art historians about "just another Impressionist show," the exhibit was popular; and its intimate quality perfectly suited the small gallery.
The gallery has shown, from left, the photography of W. Eugene Smith; paintings by Frederic E. Church ("Parthenon, Athens, from the Northwest"); and, below that, an actual piece of the Parthenon. This page: the gallery and director Winegrad.
If the Ross Gallery does happen to exhibit commonly seen art, it's shown with a special twist.
Unlike shows at Penn's Institute of Contemporary Art, shows at the Ross Gallery do not typically provoke controversy. When there is discontent, it might have to do with whether a certain artist is sufficiently distinguished for a show, e.g., the painter Françoise Gilot, Picasso's widow.
Yet the gallery does occasionally have to answer the age-old question, "What is art?" Says Winegrad: "Some people would say that the show 'Creative Solutions to Ecological Issues,' which we had in 1994, didn't qualify as art. However, the scientists thought it was terrific. They could really relate to the sort of things we presented."
Sometimes the sensitivity is political, rather than artistic. Up to the last minute of the opening of the 1995 "Building Bridges: Palestinian and Israeli Artists Speak," Winegrad recalls, the wife of one of the Palestinian guests was urging her husband not to attend because the Israeli consul would be present. He did attend. And that was the whole purpose of the show: building bridges, something a university is well suited to do.
Another natural role for a university gallery is to focus attention on lesser-known art of local origin. One exhibit was built around the eye-dazzling rugs and blankets created by Navajo weavers using aniline-dyed yarns produced in the Germantown section of Philadelphia during the end of the last century. This was a classic Ross Gallery story of combined and far-flung talents. The brainchild of David K. O'Neil, '77 C, it was guest-curated by specialists from the University Museum and the University of Colorado, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and private donors, and enriched by holdings from such institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Taos Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, and the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.
It is not an easy matter for Winegrad to choose from among the myriad possibilities for exhibit subjects at the Ross Gallery. Suggestions come from faculty, students, alumni, and others within the Penn community and are considered by the Ross advisory committee, headed by Patrick Murphy, director of the I.C.A., in consultation with Winegrad.
"The fact that there is somebody in our community who cares enough to make an impassioned case for using this University space is primary," says Winegrad. "Of course, this does not mean that we take on every alumnus or trustee who has a relative who paints. I have, I think, a sort of intuitive feel of balance for what will work."
More broadly, Winegrad has a feel for bringing unexpected spots of brightness to the normal functions of academic life. She was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire (the home, she points out, not only of the grocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher, but also of Isaac Newton; not the least of Winegrad's talents are an eye for irony and a wry wit). After graduating from the University of Oxford, she came to Penn and earned a doctorate in French literature. Among her major contributions during a 20-year career in Penn administration was authorship, with then-President Martin Meyerson, of the University's history in portraits, Gladly Learn and Gladly Teach. She has also written Through Time Across Continents: 100 Years of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University Museum, and a decennial history of the Arthur Ross Gallery. She served as special assistant to three Penn presidents. For years she wrote the citations for honorary degrees (including Arthur Ross's), embedding the text with quiet puns appropriate to the honorand's field of expertise.
Above: Winegrad with friend of-the-gallery Nancy Grace at the Penn president's house, taken by Sylvia Plachy, who had a Ross show. Left: Oulad Chinnane flat-woven rug from Morocco. Next page : art-like science: eggs from the Costa Rican butterfly (family Pieridae) from Penn botanist Dr. Daniel H. Janzen.
In a sense, directing an art gallery is in line with her career of unusual assignments. And it has drawn forth unexpected strengths. For instance, masterminding the log-rolling of a priceless, 3,500-pound, eight-foot-long, bronze mother-and-baby by sculptor Henry Moore from the parking lot to the Furness steps, where it was raised by pulleys. And supervising the moving of walls to make the Ross space appropriate for a specific show. And conjuring up money from unsuspecting donors who didn't know until she told them how much they wanted to fund a show of North American weavings or Guatemalan textiles.
Actually, fund-raising is no small requirement, since ambitious undertakings like the Parthenon show can run as high as $100,000. The typical funding, says Winegrad, "is totally atypical. Each case is different. Patrick Murphy has described it as 'one-night stands.' I wish that weren't the case, but it is." This means that, for each exhibition, she develops a fund-raising mechanism. Seed money from the gallery's endowment helps, as do "angels" and penny-pinching.
Gentle persuasion also helps. Winegrad met with a collector who specifically said he was not interested in funding a show by a certain sculptor. She took with her a small item by the sculptor in question and simply placed the piece on his desk. At the end of the meeting, the collector said, "I like it; how much do you want?" Startled, she named a figure. Later, she realized it wasn't enough. She went back. "Could I add another thousand dollars?" She could.
Winegrad refers to fund-raising as the art of the match. She knows whom to go to for what, and usually she succeeds. "It's as if we have a sort of fairy godmother looking after us," she says. And sometimes that godmother smiles a bit more broadly. A show on Denmark's response to the Holocaust, sponsored by the Thanks to Scandinavia Foundation, resulted in an increased number of foundation scholarships to Penn.
None of this would have happened, of course, without the man whom Winegrad refers to as "the master of the match," Arthur Ross, an international businessman and statesman whose philanthropic causes have ranged from funding other galleries, all in New York City, to beautifying Central Park; he is still very much a part of his one Philadelphia undertaking.
Gradually the gallery's purview is extending beyond the University into the West Philadelphia community as a whole. With a small grant received last year, Winegrad hired artist/teacher Sebastienne Mundheim, who set up a program to bring elementary and high-school classes into the gallery for tours and dramatic skits related to work on display. These are followed up with visits to the classroom, where Mundheim takes up the same themes and has the students create their own artwork, inspired by what they saw at the gallery.
In addition, the gallery holds Saturday workshops for young children, with dancing, singing, and storytelling relating to the exhibits. Adults in the community are welcome at scheduled lectures, such as the one conducted by Mary Ellen Mark on the opening day of her photography exhibit.
Given the increasing scope of the gallery's activities, Winegrad feels fortunate to have the professional help of full-time gallery coordinator Lucia I. Dorsey, who is responsible for day-to-day administration, and a part-time administrative assistant, University of the Arts student Angie Capozello, who created the gallery's World Wide Web site. (Spectators from some twenty-five countries have "visited" the gallery online, Capozello reports.)
Even with this help, it's a full load, and Winegrad runs a tight, if informal, ship. A study in motion, she flits from meeting to meeting dressed in warm colors, interesting fabrics, and ethnic jewelry, her demeanor enthusiastic and a look of merriment, bordering on mischief, in her eyes. So quickly do her thoughts take form that sentences intrude upon one another, with parenthetical phrases inserted here and there-never, however, at the expense of radio-perfect, crisply enunciated speech.
Sam Maitin, '51 C, a well-known Philadelphia artist who attended the recent wall-to-wall-packed opening of the Mark show, says: "I think Dilys has done remarkable things here, but the gallery doesn't get the attention it should except for certain shows like this one. It's typical Philadelphia-not fully, but mildly, appreciated. People should be running around campus talking about what's going on at the Arthur Ross Gallery."
Winegrad was busy at the same event talking up such future exhibition subjects as Moroccan carpets, hobnobbing with gallery friends and other friends, greeting artists, and charming the corporate heads-it never being, in her view, too early to start matchmaking.