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From a Prison to a Thriving Cultural Locus: The Evolution of Doylestown's Michener Art Museum

By Paul Rowe

In the early 1980s, the Bucks County Arts Council, a group that advocated for artists and art appreciation, providing exhibition and educational opportunities for the public, envisioned what is today the Michener Art Museum as an art center featuring exhibitions and art lessons.

This group's daring vision was to transform the decommissioned Bucks County Prison into a cultural locus for Bucks County and beyond. Today, these community leaders including-- Herman Silverman, Katharine Steele Renninger, Robert Byers, Sr., Frank Gallagher, and William Brenner-- are recognized as the founders of the Michener Art Museum.

"These community leaders embarked on a mission that quickly evolved into a more sophisticated museum concept, focused on collecting and preserving the art and craft of the region's treasured artists," CEO/Director Lisa Tremper Hanover said. "Herman Silverman engaged his close friend and Doylestown's most famous son James A. Michener to give his name and an endowment to the museum to ensure its longevity and prosperity."

After the name of the museum was decided and the prison was identified as an appropriate site, funding was secured to re-adapt the original core of the warden house, guard station, and perimeter stone wall. Next, gallery and educational spaces were created.

A current exhibition at the Michener Art Museum is Light and Matter: The Photographic Object, curated by Kelsey Halliday Johnson. This dynamic installation uses the photography genre as its basis while exploring alternative ways to incorporate the photographic concept in installations, collage, and sculpture. The artists behind Light and Matter make a bold claim for photography's existence in the realm of physical space that cannot be isolated to digital screens. The diverse results are breathtaking. To enhance the viewing experience, there's even a specially designed app called "Dark Matter" that visitors can download to their phones and employ as they move through the gallery.

A major exhibition on view through July 9, 2017, is "Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Form," which features a collection of previously undiscovered work by one of America's best-known modernists. Comprising photographs and paintings by Sheeler along with fashions of the era, the exhibition evokes the personalities, glamour, and promise of the Jazz Age, and reveals for the first time how Sheeler's "day job" as a photographer at Condé Nast shaped his aesthetic vision and artistic career.

Students and parents alike who have taken part in Michener's summer camps deeply appreciate the Museum's carefully honed approach and commitment to delivering both technical instruction and creative inspiration to all students.

"Students who attend our summer camps, or any of our many year-round arts classes, find inspiration in original works of art in our galleries, in our sculpture gardens, and within our historic structure with a fascinating backstory," Tremper Hanover said. "Our classes are a wonderful entrée to learning about what motivates an artistic vision and how to experiment with one's own creative talents."

These camps provide opportunities for kids to make friends, engage in meaningful conversations, share perspectives, and immerse themselves in creative thinking and hands-on art making that they might not be exposed to otherwise.

Next year, the Michener Art Museum will be proudly celebrating its 30th anniversary. The Museum welcomes new members every day and its staff is always delighted when community members and others decide to show their support by becoming members.

In this contemporary world in which the masses are continuously bombarded with news and electronic media, members of the Michener Art Museum are offered a comforting respite from chaos. Just as a prison was once changed into a cultural safe haven, Bucks County museumgoers transform their lives on a daily basis through meaningful engagement with the arts.

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About The Author

Paul Rowe is a graduate instructor of writing and master's student of Literature at...

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