Looking Back...Michener Museum: "Art and Soul" of Bucks County (from the 32nd edition)

by Doris Brandes

In 1988, with the support of many dedicated citizens, the James A. Michener Art Museum opened in Doylestown as an independent, non-profit cultural institution dedicated to preserving, interpreting and exhibiting the art and cultural heritage of the Bucks County region. The museum is named for Doylestown's most famous son, the Pulitzer -Prize winning writer and supporter of the arts who had first dreamed of a regional art museum in the early 1960s.  Today the museum prides itself on being the "Art and Soul" of Bucks County.

Unveiling of Edward W. Redfield's painting, The Burning of Center Bridge
Unveiling of Edward W. Redfield's painting,
The Burning of Center Bridge, at the Museum's
10th anniversary celebration in 1998.
Photo Whitney Photography,
courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.

In November of 1999, the James A. Michener Art Museum publicly announced the largest single gift in the institution's history. Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest gave the museum an extensive collection of fifty-nine paintings by important regional artists of the Pennsylvania Impressionist School. It is now home to the finest collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings in public or private hands.

Ensconced in the museum's walled, lush "back yard" is an outdoor gallery, the Patricia D. Pfundt Sculpture Garden. Sculptures are on view in a natural setting that pays homage to the Bucks County landscape which has inspired countless artists.  The museum hosts nationally touring special exhibitions and also showcases important regional artists.

Woman Washing Her Hair
In the sculpture garden, Woman Washing Her Hair, by Joe Jenks, black granite, 1954. Gift from the grandson of the artist. Photo courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.

Conoid Cushion Chair
George Nakashima, Conoid Cushion Chair, 1961, walnut, hickory, cotton and upholstry. H. 33.5 x W. 34.25 x D. 35.25 inches. Collection of George Nakashima, Woodworker. From the exhibition, "George Nakashima and the Modernish Movement."

George Nakashima (1905-1990) was internationally known for his innovative furniture designs as well as his meditative architectural interiors based on ancient principals of Japanese design. He created the Nakashima studio in Bucks County after World War II and soon established himself as one of the premier American woodworkers of the 20th Century. The Nakashima reading room is a permanent installation designed by his daughter Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. During the summer of 2001 a special display of George Nakashima and the Modernist Movement will examine Nakashima's influence on contemporary art and design. It features a core group of Nakashima works as well as related works by several major European and American designers.

Another major exhibition featuring Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950s and '60s as well as recent acquisitions of works by regional artists not previously exhibited at the Michener opens on July 14 and continues through October 7, 2001.

The Education Department has a mission to involve the community in the visual arts through a diverse program which seeks to develop a lifelong involvement with the arts. In addition to school-year programs, there are a variety of summer activities for children on and off site.  There is also serious attention devoted to inspiring people of all ages to become better acquainted with the wonderful collection. With each new exhibition, curators, historians, authors, artists, and sometimes the family of regional artists, are part of planned programs. On-going lectures, demonstrations, gallery  tours, videos, and special events help the participant understand the meaning behind the works on view. Frequently the acquired knowledge leads to further interest for individuals, in which case, the Art Research Library can be accessed by appointment.

Girl scouts "scouting out the art door"
Girl scouts "scouting out the art door,"
display their art-to-wear made at art camp.
Photo courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.

One of the most fascinating areas of the museum is a separate wing called “Creative Bucks County,”  It houses a multi-media, interactive exhibition which brings to life the work of the many visual artists, authors, playwrights, lyricists, and composers who have lived and worked in Bucks County. It includes individual  displays on twelve of the county's best known artists, a video theater, and a comprehensive computerized database containing information on hundreds of Bucks County artists, both living and deceased. Just to name a few, the list includes Pearl Buck, Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Edward Redfield, and Edward Hicks.  Many of these artists gravitated to Bucks County to escape the rigors of New York. Most of the painters were drawn by the bucolic setting, the farms, the river, and the special light by which they painted in the prized impressionist style. The composers, lyricists, and writers were drawn by the closeness to New York and the accumulating cultural community.

The Museum Shop specializes in acquiring the work of local artists. In addition to a wide range of books by/about Bucks County residents, the shop also sells local handmade crafts, from jewelry to pottery. Children especially love to buy items to remind them of their visit, and there is something in every price range to bring home. Adjacent to the shop is a small, but convenient café. Lunches are reasonable and so well thought of that locals frequently stop in just 'to do' lunch. The café is also open on Wednesday evenings for light fare.

Since the Museum opened in 1988, it has grown and developed into an important cultural center in Bucks County and beyond.  Located in the heart of Bucks County, it is housed in a splendidly renovated historic site that formerly served as the county jail from 1884-1986. James A Michener liked to tell the story about his youth, growing up in Doylestown. "They used to say to me,  "James, if you don't behave yourself, you're likely to end up in jail!" "Well, here I am", he proudly boasted at the dedication of the museum which bears his name.

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