Trustees approve proposal to name new art museum

May 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A proposal to name a planned new art museum at University Park in honor of the late Barbara and James Palmer was approved today (May 8) by the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Penn State President Eric J. Barron said the landmark new building will be named to honor the original donors whose unparalleled support laid the foundation for the University’s leadership in the arts. When the existing Palmer Museum of Art moves into its new facility in the Arboretum at Penn State, it will continue to bear the name of the late Barbara and James Palmer, whose cumulative gifts to the museum are valued at more than $50 million. 

“Barbara and Jim believed deeply in the role that the arts can play in the lives of students, families and citizens of our region,” said Barron. “Over 45 years, they invested their philanthropy and their service in a vision of the Palmer Museum of Art as a jewel in Penn State’s crown, a destination and a resource for art lovers of all ages. It is thanks to their generosity and leadership that the Palmer Museum has joined the top ranks of university art museums nationwide.”

The design of the new museum is underway with plans calling for it to be located in the Arboretum along Bigler Road on the campus. With nearly twice the exhibition space of the current Palmer Museum of Art, new classroom spaces and teaching galleries, flexible event spaces, and on-site parking, the facility, designed by Allied Works Architecture, will connect and integrate with the Arboretum. The new Palmer is expected to be a cultural destination for students, locals and visitors from across the nation and a driver of economic development for Centre County. 

The new facility is being made possible by philanthropy from supporters across the community and the country, but the Palmers remain the leading philanthropists and guiding spirits for Penn State’s art museum, according to museum director Erin Coe. 

“We would not be the institution we are today, recognized as one of the finest university art museums in the country, without the decades of leadership and support offered by Jim and Barbara Palmer and their families and friends,” said Coe. “The Palmers began donating works of art to the Museum of Art at Penn State long before the official unveiling of the museum that bears their name in 1993. Over the years, gifts from their collection have immeasurably enriched our collections, particularly in American painting, now one of our greatest strengths. We are proud to carry the Palmer name and legacy forward into our future as a leader among academic art museums.”

Painting of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer

A 1983 painting of James and Barbara Palmer, the namesakes of the Palmer Art Museum at Penn State. The work, "Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. James Palmer," is an oil on canvas by Jerome Witkin in the Palmer's permanent collection.

IMAGE: Palmer Museum of Art

Although not graduates of Penn State, the Palmers became supporters and leaders for the University after moving to State College in 1953. Jim was the president and CEO of C-COR Electronics and Centre Video — now Comcast — for 25 years, while Barbara was a member of the company’s board of directors. Beyond their service and philanthropy to countless organizations in Centre County, they invested deeply in the institution they adopted as their own. The Palmers served as volunteers in multiple fundraising campaigns and gave generously to areas across Penn State, including the College of Engineering, the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, Outreach and the University Libraries.

Their greatest legacy, however, is in the College of Arts and Architecture, through gifts to student scholarships, the Center for the Performing Arts, Penn State Centre Stage, Penn’s Woods Music Festival and the museum. In 1974, the Palmers became founding members of the membership organization that would later become the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art, and in 1990, they co-founded the museum’s advisory board. The Palmers served as leaders for two major fundraising campaigns for the museum, which was renamed to honor their 1986 gift to expand and renovate the current Palmer. 

“As an art education student at Penn State in the late 1980s, and again into the mid-1990s, the  Palmer Museum of Art became an essential part of my graduate studies,” said B. Stephen Carpenter II, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University. “Today, as dean, I am proud Penn State continues to recognize their commitment to keeping the arts at the forefront of our educational mission. Jim and Barbara were instrumental in building a national reputation for the museum. By retaining their name, we can build upon that recognition as we move forward into a new era for the University and the Palmer Museum of Art.” 

The museum’s collections, as well as its space, have been enhanced by the Palmers’ leadership. The couple shared a devotion to building their own collection of American art, which they grew into one of the finest in the country. Barbara continued collecting after Jim’s death in 2001, and their collection was committed to Penn State and celebrated with the 2013 exhibition and publication “A Gift from the Heart: American Art from the Collection of James and Barbara Palmer.” When Barbara died in 2019, the bequest enhanced the museum’s collections with nearly 200 works by such prominent 19th- and 20th-century artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jacob Lawrence. The bequest, combined with the 450 works previously given by the Palmers, ranks the couple as the single largest contributors of art to the museum.  

“The Palmers set a remarkable example of philanthropy and personal engagement that has inspired other donors to commit works from their own collections to the University,” said Coe. “The new museum will offer a state-of-the art home to showcase our growing collection, where we will be able to share these significant cultural assets with new generations of students and visitors. There can be no more fitting name for this home, now and into the future, than the Palmer Museum of Art.”

Chuck Palmer, son of James and Barbara, said, “Our family is delighted that the museum that meant so much to our parents will continue to bear their name. Our mother and father believed that art was vital to the life of their community and to the impact of Penn State as an institution. We hope that their example will motivate others to contribute and continue to guide the University, its supporters and lovers of the arts into perpetuity.”

Fundraising for the new Palmer Museum of Art is ongoing. Gifts to the project will provide much-needed funds to support the expanded facility and to enhance exhibitions, education programs, and outreach opportunities. Contributions also will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

Last Updated May 11, 2020