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This article by Brenda Lange was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Hope Gets Its Michener

When goals are met, some may take it easy and rest

on their laurels. Not so the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown,

Pennsylvania. After more than a dozen years of steady growth, the

museum is planning to open a satellite facility in New Hope, in a

multi-use complex known as Union Square, with a projected completion

date of summer 2003.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the James A. Michener Art Museum at

New Hope in Union Square on West Bridge Street, is Thursday, June

20, at 5:30 p.m.

Since the Michener first opened its doors to a community starved for

a local art venue, it has grown steadily in its visitors, membership,

collection, and size of its facility. In many ways, the original goal

set by its board of directors — to create a world-class regional

museum dedicated to preserving the culture of Bucks County by collecting,

preserving, and exhibiting its art — has been met.

The museum has grown its collection to about 2,300 pieces of artwork,

hosted 92,000 visitors last year, boasts a membership of more than

3,000, and is the self-declared "Art and Soul" of Bucks County.

Built on the site of the former Bucks County Prison in 1988, the museum

was the brainchild of area businessman Herman Silverman and many local

supporters. The museum took its name from Pulitzer Prize-winning author

and Doylestown native son, James A. Michener. Sometimes mistaken as

a museum that’s all about Michener, the multi-media museum does house

a small, permanent exhibit dedicated to his life and work, including

the desk from his Pipersville, Bucks County, home at which he wrote

his 1991 "The Novel," the story of a Pennsylvania Dutch community.

Michener’s "Tales of the South Pacific," was his first book

and the Pulitzer Prize winner.

Through two expansions, the museum has grown to nearly 40,000 square-feet

of gallery and public space, shop, and snack bar. In the past three

years, the addition of the Patricia D. Pfundt Sculpture Garden added

outdoor exhibit space, and the gift of 59 paintings from the collection

of Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, gave the museum the distinction of

having the country’s largest collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist

paintings. Lenfest, president of the Lenfest Group and chairman of

the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, built his cable television

company into the 11th largest in the nation before selling it to the

Comcast Corporation in 2000. The Lenfests have been major donors to

the region’s arts.

At the same time that the Michener Museum was living up to its mission

and growing toward capacity, an area builder acquired a substantial

piece of prime property in New Hope on West Bridge Street. George

E. Michael, known in the area for his restoration of the Lambertville

House across the river, owns land in both towns. He watched with disappointment

as the sister towns "grew in opposite directions."

"New Hope had been known mostly as an arts community," says

Michael, "but I saw it deteriorating since I moved my office here

six years ago. So when I bought Union Square, I decided I wanted to

do something to bring the arts back to the community."

Michael called a town meeting to get input. "Everyone

was supportive in wanting to bring an arts venue back to New Hope,"

he says. After investigating and rejecting numerous ideas — ranging

from renting studio space to local painters and other artists, to

building a performing arts venue — Michael met with Silverman

and Bruce Katsiff, Michener Museum director, and the idea of expanding

the Michener’s space began to take shape.

"The Michener is a natural," Michael says, "and so obvious

— after the fact. The plans for this state-of-the-art facility

are exceeding my expectations. It’s a great coup for New Hope —

Win-win for the community and the museum."

"Union Square in general and the Michener Art Museum are tremendous

additions to the borough," agrees Richard Hirschfield, New Hope

Borough Council president. "This is an important statement culturally

for New Hope. Having the Michener here is like coming home — a

great combination of history, culture, and commerce."

Specific details for the museum’s new facility, which is to be named

the James A. Michener Art Museum — New Hope, began to take shape

over the course of several meetings of the museum’s board, Katsiff,

and Michael.

"We wanted our own space, with a separate entrance, and a museum

environment with high ceilings, climate control, and museum lighting,"

explains Katsiff. The museum also wanted a long-term commitment from

the builder, which they got, in the form of a 20-year, rent-free lease.

"From our perspective, this project offered us the ability to

reach a more economically and culturally-diverse audience, it puts

us where the people are, and it gives us more exhibit space. Of course,

there were economic challenges and we didn’t know how the local community

would receive this plan," Katsiff adds.

The $500,000 necessary to fit out the space to museum specifications

was only the tip of the iceberg, as annual operating costs were factored

into the equation. The board wanted to cover five years of operating

expenses, and so it was decided to move forward with a $1 million

capital campaign.

According to Carole Hurst, the museum’s director of institutional

development, that goal has nearly been met through an outpouring of

support from the community, contributions from the Delaware River

Port Authority, an appropriations bill by Congressman Jim Greenwood,

and two grants sponsored by Representative Chuck McIllhinney and Senator

Joe Conti.

"We’re also exploring partnering with other cultural organizations

to help promote each other, like the New Hope Library, Bucks County

Playhouse, New Hope Historical Society, and Perry Mansion," says

Hurst.

When the museum board voted in 2000 to move ahead with the project,

it was with three stipulations: The new facility had to meet the standards

already set by the main museum; it could not threaten the viability

of the parent museum in Doylestown; and its financial support had

to come from the New Hope-Solebury community.

The 5,000 square feet of space in the new building will be used to

best advantage by splitting it into two 2,000-square-foot galleries

and a reception and shop area. The popular, interactive "Creative

Bucks County" exhibit currently housed in Doylestown will be moved

to one of the galleries, while the other will be filled with works

by Bucks County and New Hope-area artists. The interior will be designed

by Celeste Callaghan Interior Design of Doylestown, and the original

designer of the "Creative Bucks County" exhibit, Ralph Applebaum

Associates of New York City, will come in to re-work that design to

fit the new space.

Constance Kimmerle, curator of collections, plans to present a "survey

of the arts" of the area: a changing exhibition covering different

periods of painting. "Initially, it is planned to run for one

year," says Kimmerle, "The opening exhibit will be a selected

survey of Pennsylvania Impressionist artists and the New Hope Modernists

of the 1920s. The Pennsylvania Impressionists have been rediscovered

and there are new avid collectors, making it more competitive to acquire

the work."

"This (expansion) has opened doors for the museum," adds Hurst.

"A lot of people feel good about the museum’s position there.

We will always be looking for the best work of each artist and building

endowments for acquisitions and collections care. Our goal is to bring

the work home and keep it here for future generations."

Current director of marketing and retail services, Amy Lent, will

take over as site administrator once it opens in June of 2003. She

has plans to cross-market each venue through museum-related product

development and promotion.

Merely tapping into a new tourist market in New Hope won’t be enough

for Lent, who says she "wants to draw visitors back to Doylestown

too." The short drive between the two towns cuts through the shopping

mecca of Peddler’s Village, and is lined with bucolic vistas as well

as historic landmark areas.

"Many people aren’t aware of all the opportunities of the area,"

she adds. "In some ways, we have a built-in audience, but the

challenge will be, after the first year, to continue to attract visitors."

The total Union Square project encompasses 130,000 square feet of

mixed-use space, including retail shops, offices, two restaurants,

the museum. A 500-car parking lot will lead to an access road connecting

Route 202. Sterlings Boutique has relocated from its former site on

the corner of Bridge and Main streets, several offices are already

in operation, and a second site for Triumph Brewing Co. of Princeton

is planned for the site. Union Square was designed by Dave Minno of

Minno and Wasko Architects of Lambertville.

— Brenda Lange

Groundbreaking Ceremony, James A. Michener Art Museum

at New Hope , Union Square, West Bridge Street, New Hope, 215-340-9800.

State Senator Joe Conti and New Hope Mayor Larry Keller join Union

Square developer George E. Michael. Thursday, June 20, 5:30 p.m.


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