Palmer Museum of Art marks its 40th anniversary

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Palmer Museum of Art opened its doors in 1972 with a permanent collection of zero works of art. Created solely as a space to host temporary exhibitions, there were no plans to amass a collection.

An outpouring of public support changed that, and within the end of its inaugural year, roughly 100 pieces had been given or transferred to the museum, which now boasts a collection of more than 7,000.

The museum is marking its anniversary and commemorating decades of largesse with “Celebrating Forty Years of Gifts: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection,” an exhibit running through Jan. 20.

Jan Muhlert, museum director for the past 16 years, said the museum is “a town-gown” effort and the product of “pride in Penn State” among alumni, community members and other supporters. More than 75 percent of the collection comes from gifts, she said.

“So much of who we are and what we do relies on the generosity of the donors,” said Patrick McGrady, Charles V. Hallman Curator at the museum.

On opening day Oct. 7, 1972, more than 1,500 people toured the Museum of Art, as it was then known; now approximately 36,000 visit annually, according to Muhlert. At the time, galleries in the HUB-Robeson Center served as the main venue for art, and the University Libraries contained a collection of prints, most of which became part of the museum’s collection. In 1986, a renaming took place when James and Barbara Palmer contributed a lead gift toward expansion efforts. Originally a three-story, square structure, the museum underwent a renovation in 1993 and grew to include 11 galleries, a 150-seat auditorium and a print-study room. It’s considered the most comprehensive art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Mainly devoted to American art -- primarily from the early 19th century to the present -- the collection also includes Baroque works from Europe as well as pottery from Korea, dating to the BCs. For the anniversary, nearly all the items throughout the museum are from the permanent collection, including works on paper by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein.

“Every year we sense that students are becoming more aware that we are here and that it’s a good place to go,” Muhlert said. “Sometimes you find them doing their homework. Different professors, more and more are giving them assignments here.”

McGrady praised the museum’s curator of education, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, with promoting that the museum can be “an extension of the classroom,” reaching beyond the art department.

Students studying French history viewed posters from late 19th-century Paris; Japanese language students examined the woodblock prints from Japan and offered translations. (Examples of these works are currently on view, including insight into the Japanese prints that emerged from the students’ research.)

“It becomes really symbiotic,” McGrady said. “They get the experience of working with original works of art, and we get their expertise.”

Muhlert said one of her challenges is striking a balance between scholarly work and exhibitions that appeal to a general audience. Looking back on notable exhibits, she cited a showing of works by figurative painter Jerome Witkin, a favorite, she said, of the museum’s influential first director, William Hull; a Henry Varnum Poor retrospective that included preparatory drawings for his frescoes in Old Main; an exhibition of work by multimedia pop artist Red Grooms; and a quilt show that had stitching enthusiasts “coming out of the woodwork.”

A staff of 11 full-timers works at the museum; some have been there since the beginning.

“That continuity helps immensely in not only establishing but the continued success for the museum,” McGrady said. “I think that’s a very key component of what we do, that we’ve managed because of good leadership to get good people to work here.”

Muhlert, only the fourth director, also pointed out the support of the Friends of the Palmer Museum Art, an organization with roots going back to 1974 that helps the museum acquire new works and funds bus trips to the museum from surrounding school districts, among other contributions.

“The goodwill and generosity show the special place that Penn State holds in the hearts of individuals,” McGrady said.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, go to

To view photos of the museum through the years, visit

Last Updated December 13, 2012