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.