Today I heard a familiar clop-clop coming down Hillcrest Avenue that has always brought me to my front door just in time to see Sam Snipes (a Bucks County treasure in his own right) riding his horse and buggy home from Summerseat (an often overlooked Bucks County treasure). It reminds me just how interesting it is to live in Bucks County.
We tend to forget what is right outside our front doors. One of those treasures is Doylestown’s James A. Michener Art Museum, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. If you haven’t visited lately, you’re missing out on the riches.
After the abandoned prison was torn down, the county leased the land and remaining century-old Bucks County prison walls and warden’s house on North Pine Street to house a museum. Doylestown treasure, native and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James A. Michener was a founder and namesake of the art museum that opened in 1988.
Michener Director and CEO Lisa Tremper Hanover says the museum rose “from a lonely little prison building to a vibrant art institution.”
Michener’s life and the museum share, if not a common story, then a recognizable outline. The art museum is housed within the once restrictive walls of a jail, constrained, at least physically, by its footprint.
Michener experienced what could have been a limiting beginning. According to his New York Times obituary, he was a foundling, raised by an impoverished Quaker widow who took in orphans and washing. Some children may have been restrained by such an upbringing. Instead, Michener traveled extensively from age 14, graduated from Swarthmore on scholarship, and found employment in a New York publishing house.
While fellow Bucks County Friend Sam Snipes choose to uphold his religious beliefs and serve his country in a non-military role stateside during World War II and in Germany post-war, Michener waived his Quaker principles and enlisted in the Navy. It was during this time that he wrote stories that would become his Tales of the South Pacific.
Michener went on to great success as an author and novelist, writing Hawaii, The Source, Texas and Alaska. He was also renowned for his art collection and philanthropy.
According to his NYT’s obit, he was humbled by his success, still “haunted by his years of poverty.” He told NYT’s Caryn James: “They have a deeper impact on someone like me than people realize. It makes you more dour, more tightly ingrained. It inhibits you. . . . I live as if I had stayed on my job and retired on a small pension and some savings and security.”
His eponymous museum may be forever impeded by its footprint, but not its potential.
“If we were to grow (physically), what would we do?” Hanover asks. “Would we break through the prison wall? That’s an artifact for me. Would we dig down or go up like a skyscraper? I don’t know.
“We’ve been growing 25 years and now it’s time to look inward, take stock and grow our offerings.”
But first, some sprucing up. The overgrown landscaping at the entrance has been redone. The lobby has been painted warm colors. The Nakashima Studio (yet another Bucks County treasure) has restored the wood furniture pieces in the Nakashima Reading Room.
A new logo helps differentiate the Michener from its neighboring Mercer Museum (treasure!). Hanover tells how the old logo often got the art museum mixed up with the “tool museum” across the street.
“The Mercer is a great colleague to us,” she adds.The public is invited to participate in the silver anniversary celebration by voting for 25 out of 125 new works of art to be added to the collection in honor of the Michener’s 25th anniversary.
September 21 and 22 will be the public celebration with an open house, activities, tours and performances.
And causing the biggest buzz is the upcoming From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly – Beyond the Icon, which opens October 28. Princess Grace’s son, Prince Albert II, will visit the exhibition at its only U.S. venue.
The Monaco prince will surely be impressed with what he sees at Michener. The permanent collection, with more than 2,700 works, includes pieces by Pennsylvania Impressionist and New Hope school artists such as Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber and Walter E. Schofield. The outdoor sculpture garden boasts bronze works by Barbara Lekberg, Allan Houser and more.The Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, a 2,500-square-foot, all-glass structure is an example of physical growth and a deepening of offering. It is available for private events and also hosts the museum’s popular Jazz Nights series.
Ongoing adult lecture series, workshops and children’s programs highlight the Michener’s connection with its community.
Go. Take family and friends visiting from out-of-town. Don’t neglect a treasure in your midst.
— Jodi Thompson