Mary Beth McKenzie. Marcsi with Arms Crossed, 2002.
Oil on canvas.
Gift of the Artist.
The Erie Art Museum was founded not by patrons with collections, but by artists. However, shortly after its founding as the Art Club of Erie at the beginning of the 20th century, the Museum began acquiring works for a permanent collection. Most of the acquisitions were displayed in the Erie Library on Perry Square—and many of these are on display today at the Blasco Library on Erie’s Bayfront. Additional works were acquired by purchase, gift and bequest, but as the founding members aged, and the organization faced the pressures of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the acquisitions program essentially stopped. When the Museum’s first professional director was hired in 1968, there were, in addition to those in the Library, only 65 works in the collection.
Today, there are nearly 9,000 objects in the collection, ranging across media, cultures and eras. As the sole art museum in northwestern Pennsylvania, its collections provide the only opportunity for many residents to experience quality works of art. The collections are by no means encyclopedic, but they are diverse, and lend themselves to a wide variety of exhibitions, often supplemented by loans from other museums and collectors.
The collection includes American and European paintings, drawings, and sculpture, with particular strength in American works from the last quarter of the 20th century, thanks to numerous gifts from Ivan Karp and Louis and Susan Meisel. American, European, and Japanese prints include large groups by individual artists, such as Hogarth, Daumier and Kollwitz. Photographs range from 19th century Japanese and European images to prints by contemporary photographers, with significant holdings of works by Stieglitz and Curtis. As is appropriate for a regional museum, the collections also contain works by notable Erie area artists, including Joseph Plavcan and John Silk Deckard, as well as many living artists. These works have been acquired both by purchase and as gifts from collectors and the artists themselves.
American art ceramics, a long time focus of the Museum’s exhibition program, are represented by works from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries, with a special emphasis on work inspired by the American Arts & Crafts Movement—especially works by Frederick Hurten Rhead and The Gates Potteries (Teco)—supported by gifts from Kirk Steehler, Don Treadway and others. The Museum also holds outstanding examples of European, Chinese and Japanese porcelains and pottery.
Among the most significant objects in the collections are bronze and stone sculptures from Greater India, ranging from 2nd century Hindu and Gandharan Buddhist stone sculptures to world class examples of South Indian bronzes from the Chola and Vijiyanagar Dynasties (10th to 16th centuries) and outstanding early Tibetan and Nepali bronzes. Almost this entire collection, along with other Asian and European objects, came to the Museum as the bequest of James D. Baldwin. Originally promised to a major museum outside the region, Mr. Baldwin decided in the early 1980s to instead give his collection to this Museum. He had begun to transfer parts of the collection by gift when his untimely death in 1986 resulted in the bequest of the entirety. Building on the success of a 1991 exhibition of Tibetan art, the Museum expanded its holdings of South Asian art to include a collection of more than 100 Tibetan paintings dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries, gifts of Michael McCormick and John and Nancy Rezk.
Other niche collections were originally created as traveling exhibitions: Gifts from Don Joint and Bryce Brown of objects by renowned designer Eva Zeisel total 250 works in ceramic, metal, wood and other media, including numerous prototypes. Original drawings for comic books, dating from 1940 to the 1970s, include surprisingly rare examples of these artworks whose value was not recognized until most of them had been discarded and destroyed.
Some collections are unique in the world of museums: The Tactile Vessel, a traveling exhibition originally mounted in 1986, comprised the first museum collection anywhere of artist-designed baskets, documenting the rediscovery of that form as a medium for artistic expression in the late 20th century. The Museum’s more than 400 unique examples of kanga and kitenge—East African printed textiles generally worn as wrap garments—is the largest collection in any museum in the world.