Doyle Hall at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, once housed the gym that in 1972 was moved to the new Maurice Stokes Center. The late university president Father Sean Sullivan, TOR, could see the unused building from his office window and recognized that it could serve well as something else.
For instance, a fine arts museum.
He brought in New York architect Roger Ferry to take on the challenge of redesigning the space. The conversion and transformation went so well that Ferry received numerous architectural awards and coverage in several professional publications.
The museum opened in 1976 with 80 works of art in the permanent collection.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA) has more than 4,500 pieces in its permanent collection, three satellite museum sites in Pennsylvania — Johnstown, Ligonier and Altoona — and one scheduled to open in Bedford in the spring. The museums are accredited through the Alliance of American Museums and welcome 70,000 visitors every year. There is no charge for admission.
Through those four sites, SAMA has developed a number of art-related programs that reach out to the elderly, children with physical and mental disabilities, veterans and others in the community. SAMA annually connects with 10,000 to 15,000 K-12 students in educational programs. There are art camps for children, lunches and lectures with exhibiting artists, and opening receptions, too.
| Various pieces of artwork at the Southern Allegenies Museum of Art.
All those things are part of the common vision shared by Saint Francis and SAMA. Their joint mission is to evoke an interest and understanding in fine arts and to make the arts more available to the underserved rural communities in the six-county region.
“We are not just a museum that hangs paintings on the walls,” SAMA executive director Gary Moyer said. “When you blend in all those programs with an art museum and take it out into the field, we have created a legacy here that we can be very proud of.”
In one of his writings, Father Gabriel J. Zeis, TOR, president of Saint Francis from 2004-14, called art a communal endeavor “to be shared and is to be done within the celebration that is community.” The university’s vision, he added, was in the Franciscan tradition that can lead students to understand that “the arts can express the presence of God.”
St. Francis of Assisi was considered a man of the arts as well as a man of God. He was a troubadour, a potter, a writer and a poet, with his heart and creations focused on God. He also was a playwright and director when he organized in the village of Greccio, Italy, what is believed to be the first live Nativity and Christmas Eve drama.
Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto, Pa. Courtesy photo
Exploring the collection
In all that St. Francis did, he was in awe of how the beauty of the arts mirrored God’s love and that man’s creativity expressed the presence of God. That influenced the founding of SAMA.
“Father Sullivan was an artist in his own right,” Moyer said. “He was the driving force behind the creation of SAMA, and a trustee emeritus. And he recognized the importance of the museum being separated from the university as its own nonprofit organization.”
|'The Church Needs Art'
In his 1999 letter to artists, Pope St. John Paul II stated strongly that art is necessary for the Church to carry out its mission. The following is an excerpt:
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.
“The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.”
The university’s founding community, Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, maintains seats on the board of trustees, and the museum has a role in the education and cultural enrichment of the students.
The frequently changing exhibits and ongoing programs draw their interest, and students can turn to the museum to fulfill three required credits in the fine arts by participating in the community enrichment series.
“We don’t have an art major here, but many times over the years, those of us who taught some of the general art courses would try to schedule visits to the museum,” said Martha O’Brien, associate dean of General Education and instructor of music.
“There’s always something interesting to see; there are a lot of events on the calendar, and sometimes there are featured local artists.”
The museum collection includes works by Rembrandt and other Old Masters dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. There’s a notable painting by 18th-century portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, most famous for his portrait of George Washington, and also a bust of Abraham Lincoln. The latter is by sculptor Thomas Dow Jones and was commissioned by the Republican leaders of Cincinnati before Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. That piece and some others were gifted to the Franciscans by the nearby estate of steel magnate Charles Schwab, the founder of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.
“We are not just a museum that hangs paintings on the walls. When you blend in all those programs with an art museum and take it out into the field, we have created a legacy here that we can be very proud of.”
— Gary Moyer, executive director at SAMA
Exhibits from the permanent collection rotate through the sites, and so do some of the contemporary shows. Lecture series feature lunches with the artists, and a residency program places rostered artists in schools in six counties.
SAMA participates in a veterans’ program at Tomorrow’s Hope in Coalsport, and also works with a state program that takes the museum into nursing homes.
Years ago, staff from one of the facilities called Moyer to report that a resident who had not walked or talked for years attempted to get out of a wheelchair and tried to speak to the visiting artist.
“That’s a very powerful message to me,” Moyer said. “Art has a very restorative and healing effect.”
A sculpture of Father Sullivan, who died in 2014, is installed at the gallery that bears his name.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
For more on the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, including information on locations, collections and educational programs, visit its website at sama-art.org
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