Nestled in the picturesque mountains of Western Pennsylvania, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art was founded to provide a cultural resource for the region’s underserved rural population. With a diverse schedule of world-class exhibitions of American art, award-winning education programs, and ambitious special events, the Museum has become a respected constituent of the region’s cultural landscape. Its imprint is witnessed not only by the tremendous growth enjoyed by the Museum, but also by the flourishing artistic talent throughout the area. Over the course of its long and heralded history, SAMA has developed into a museum satellite system numbering four sites spanning three counties while offering an impressive series of programs, exhibitions and events that annually reach tens of thousands of the region’s citizens.
First established on the campus of Saint Francis College (now University) in Loretto, Pennsylvania, SAMA opened its doors in June of 1976 with a permanent collection consisting of forty-seven paintings, drawings, and sculpture, together with a collection of twenty etchings by John Sloan. Michael M. Strueber was appointed as Director, a position he would hold for twenty-four years. The Rev. Sean M. Sullivan, T.O.R., then president of Saint Francis College and a driving force behind the establishment of the Museum, was elected the first president of the Board of Trustees. While many newly established institutions may experience growing pains, SAMA enjoyed significant success. Its early years were marked with notable exhibitions and the introduction of the annual summer Gala, an event which, three and a half decades later, remains the most anticipated event on the Museum’s special events calendar.
Just three years into its existence, SAMA began a successful expansion campaign that would span nearly twenty years. By moving into new markets, the Museum could better serve its communities by increasing the number of exhibitions and ancillary programming while also providing easier access to SAMA’s cultural resources. The Museum’s satellite model, the oldest ongoing program of its kind in the country, was conceived by Director Emeritus Michael Strueber. While attending an American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Boston, Strueber was inspired when he saw the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ satellite museum that had recently opened in Quincy Market. Although that marked the first museum satellite, it has since closed, leaving SAMA as the longest-running satellite program in the United States.
The Museum’s expansion began in 1979 when SAMA opened its Altoona Extension. Three years after that, in the summer of 1982, the Museum opened another facility in the Central Park Commons building in Downtown Johnstown. After a little more than a decade, SAMA’s presence in the Johnstown community moved uptown, and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Johnstown took root in the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where it remains today. In 1995, SAMA’s Altoona Museum moved to its present location in the Brett Building in Downtown Altoona. Just two years later, in the fall of 1997, SAMA capped its expansion with a move westward into Westmoreland County. This facility, located in the historic Ligonier Valley and set amongst numerous beautiful flower gardens, is one of SAMA’s most visited museum sites.
Since its inception, SAMA has focused not only on exhibiting American art, but also collecting and preserving it for generations to come. Over the years, the collection has grown to number more than 4,000 works and represents many prominent national artists. But SAMA’s collection also strives to maintain a repository of western and central Pennsylvania’s contributions to American art, and as such boasts a strong catalogue of local and regional artists. This commitment to preserving and advancing regional art also extends to the exhibition calendar. Early in its history, the Loretto Museum established a tradition of celebrating the area’s finest artists with an invitational Triennial exhibition, a legacy that continues today in the form of the Museum’s juried Biennial. Additionally, each of SAMA’s three satellite museums proudly host annual exhibitions of regional art groups.
Throughout its history, SAMA has mounted a diverse schedule of noteworthy exhibitions. In its first year, the Museum mounted a major show featuring the Virginia Steel Scott Collection, a world premiere of American art staged during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The exhibition had traveled from Pasadena, California, and put SAMA on the art world’s map early in the Museum’s history. SAMA’s early years also included the hosting of several Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts exhibitions featuring distinguished artists such as George Nakashima and Andrew Wyeth. The Museum also generated several statewide traveling exhibitions featuring a wide variety of Pennsylvanian art, with Pittsburgh Glass, 1797-1891 (1979) and Manufactured by Hand: The Soap Hollow School (1993) among the most notable. In recent years, the Museum has featured major solo exhibitions of artists such as Ansel Adams, Wayman Adams, Colleen Browning, Adolf Dehn, Balcomb Greene, and Joseph Holston. A Glass Triumvirate (2004), celebrating the glass art of William Morris, Howard Ben Tré and Henry L. Hillman Jr., and Portraits of the Eastern Frontier (2008), featuring works by noted historical painters Robert Griffing and John Buxton, among others, and coinciding with the celebration of Ligonier’s 250th anniversary, were crowning achievements. The greatest sense of pride for the Museum, however, comes from offering its exhibitions, and many corresponding programs, to the public free of charge.
SAMA’s commitment to its communities is perhaps best exhibited through its many educational programs. In conjunction with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA), SAMA facilitates an ambitious Arts-in-Education program to public and parochial schools throughout the Museum’s six county service region of Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. Through the program, museum educators take works from the permanent collection into the schools to provide programs designed to enhance students’ understanding of art creation, technique, history, criticism and aesthetics. The Museum also offers an Artist-in-Residence program that provides an opportunity for students to work side-by-side with professional artists with mutual involvement in the creative process. Schools can select from a roster of artists proficient in the visual, performing, musical and literary arts. In recent years, SAMA’s residency program has branched out to meet the needs of the region’s elderly population. The Museum/Healthcare Partnership Program, administered in conjunction with health care providers, was designed to provide relief for patients dealing with physical pain and discomfort. Through the program, therapists and patients work directly with trained artists to construct meaningful works of art. Recently, the program has been further expanded to include working with disabled veterans, as well as place a greater emphasis on citizens with mental handicaps.
The Museum’s focus on education extends far beyond the school setting. For schools that participate in SAMA’s in-school programs, the Museum hosts its annual Artists of the 21st Century student art exhibitions. On view during the spring at SAMA’s Loretto and Ligonier Valley sites, the exhibitions provide hundreds of aspiring young artists with an opportunity to see their work exhibited in a gallery setting with full museum text panels. Summer art camps are held each year to provide children with exposure to a museum setting, while also offering a chance to work with professional artists in a variety of media. Professional development workshops designed for teachers, artists, and school administrators are held throughout the year. Additionally, a Lunch a l’Art series is offered to encourage a greater understanding of various art forms and movements, as well as to foster a deeper appreciation for the exhibitions presented by the Museum.
Throughout the year, SAMA offers an exciting schedule of special events designed to keep its patrons intrigued and engaged. The Loretto museum has hosted a summer Gala, SAMA’s most successful fundraiser, for more than thirty years. The event has garnered a reputation as being one of the region’s most sophisticated annual social events and has attracted a who’s who list of politicians, artists, celebrities and community and business leaders. Within the past ten years, other SAMA facilities have created their own signature fundraising event. SAMA-Ligonier Valley celebrates an annual spring Garden Party set on the Museum lawn amongst the flower gardens. At SAMA-Altoona, The Art of Wine and Fashion’s style show brings a big city atmosphere to the region each fall. Additionally, the Museum has an active and engaged auxiliary that is instrumental in the planning and preparation of the Museum’s programs.
SAMA accomplished a milestone achievement in 1996 when, during its twenty-year anniversary, the Museum received accreditation by the AAM. The Museum further acknowledged its 20th anniversary with the publication of its first permanent collection catalogue. Another tremendous honor was bestowed upon the Museum in 2002, when it was named a recipient of one of six national awards from the Institute for Museum and Library Services that honor outstanding museums and libraries that demonstrate an ongoing institutional commitment to public service. Representatives of SAMA accepted the award from First Lady Laura Bush at a ceremony at The White House. The Museum’s commitment to education also earned the 1997/98 Best Practice in Pennsylvania Arts Education award from the PCA and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In the fall of 2001, the Museum was further honored when it received the “Power of Creativity” Community Arts Education Award Initiative by Americans for the Arts and Binney & Smith. In 2010, SAMA’s commitment to preserving, exhibiting and advancing American art was acknowledged when the Museum was named one of two primary beneficiaries (the other being the National Academy of Design in New York City) of the Estate of Geoffrey Wagner. The Museum received a vast collection of artwork and memorabilia from Wagner’s late wife, artist Colleen Browning, and is now the largest repository of the artist’s work. In an effort to honor Browning’s legacy and introduce her work to a wider audience, the Museum commissioned a major monograph on the artist penned by Dr. Philip Eliasoph. The book, The Enchantment of Realism, was published by Hudson Hills and is available for purchase at SAMA’s four locations and several online booksellers. SAMA also has developed a major traveling exhibition featuring Browning’s work. Colleen Browning: A Brush with Magic debuted in Dublin, Ireland and has also been shown at the National Academy of Design in New York City. The exhibition is currently scheduled for future showings in Connecticut, Ohio and Texas. In conjunction with the exhibition, SAMA hosted the first Colleen Browning Symposium on Twentieth Century American Realism at its Loretto museum in September 2012. The symposium featured noted art historians and scholars including Dr. Eliasoph, Dr. Henry Adams, Dr. Gail Levin, and Dr. Jonathan Weinberg.
With four museum sites spread throughout central and western Pennsylvania, SAMA is able to bring more than 70,000 visitors annually through its doors, eighty-five percent of whom reside within the Museum’s six geographically isolated counties. When considering the impact of its numerous in-school education programs, SAMA is able to reach out to tens of thousands of individuals every year. With an impact like this, the Museum is well positioned to continue its tradition of serving the rural population well into the 21st century and beyond.