On the Road: Small is Beautiful

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.

On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.

More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.

Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.

Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.

6 thoughts on “On the Road: Small is Beautiful

  1. Krista Kendall

    Max! You hooked me with your first visit! And it is so close to home, it will make a nice road trip for us.

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  2. Janice Klein

    Max! Really? You didn’t know? The experience you had with the Washington County Museum of Fine Art is pretty typical of small museums across the country. It is the volunteer Boards, with the addition of one or two professional staff, that make visiting so many of our smaller American museums some of the most amazing experiences you will have. I can list – off the top of my head – a dozen museums here in Arizona that will knock your socks off, and my colleagues in other state museum associations can easily do the same. We’ve been telling you “small is beautiful” for years!

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  3. Mary Turner

    Thanks for posting this! Since we live only 40 miles down the Pike from Hagerstown, we paid them a visit yesterday afternoon. Even without meeting the board president in the garden, it was a wonderful visit to an amazing collection. But I have to second my friend Janice’s comments above: my experience with the Illinois Association of Museums taught me that there are many of those gems around the country.

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  4. Sarah Hall

    So sorry I was stuck on a zoom call and didn’t get to meet you Max–but glad that you had some time with Roger and Daniel. Stop by again–we’re not far away! Sarah

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  5. ochorsephoto

    As a member of the community, a former art history grad student and a parent, this IS a fantastic museum. The collection is great, city park is also nice to walk, and they have offered great kids programs I’ve taken advantage of. Last year my high school kid took a watercolor class over zoom, and had done the regular camps when younger. The watercolor class was a little break during a tough year and she loved the teacher. Many programs are free for community members and since it’s a relatively low income city, that’s a definite positive for arts in Hagerstown.

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