Something has changed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Call it a stylistic change; an environmental alteration; a feeling of grandeur much reduced, as in from high to low.

To be sure, entering the museum still generates the feeling one might get when they enter a great cathedral. But while architecture and bricks and mortar is “permanent,” what I’m talking about has more to do with what is happening on the “floor” of the museum. 

In early June, I was part of a small press contingent that got to view the painting known as the “American Mona Lisa,” James McNeill Whistler’s “Whistler’s Mother,” on view for the first time in Philadelphia in 142 years. The work, which is on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, had its first American showing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts in 1881.

Leading the press tour was Jennifer Thompson, PMA’s curator of European painting and sculpture, who explained how the demure figure of Whistler’s mother has an almost ghostly presence, a presence that has mystified viewers since the work’s unveiling in London in 1872. “There is a strong unknowingness about her, as if she was withholding some information from us,” Thompson said. 

While listening to Thompson talk about the life of Anna Matilda Whistler, I could hear traces of that indomitable PMA speaking best exemplified by Anne d’Harnoncourt, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art until her death in 2008, and Joseph J. Rishel, d’Harnoncourt’s husband, a PMA curator and a specialist in the art of Paul Cezanne, who died in 2020. 

These so-called PMA conversational “traces” aren’t easy to explain, but you know them when you hear them. They include perfect articulation, a slow and matter-of-fact delivery with just enough scholarly input to keep the listener intellectually engaged, as well as a sense of humor. In many of the obituaries written at the time of Rishel’s death in 2020, there were comments about his humorous quips and asides whenever he would talk to people or press groups about art. Timothy Rub, who succeeded d’Harnoncourt as director and CEO of the museum in 2009, called Rishel “one of the great makers of exhibitions.” 

I vaguely recall my first Philadelphia Museum of Art press event in the early eighties when Jean Sutherland Boggs served as PMA’s Director, taking over after the resignation of Evan Turner, who resigned in 1978 after a dispute with the Board of Trustees. Boggs, an art history professor at Harvard, who left PMA in 1982, is often overlooked when writers, bloggers and others claim that Anne d’Harnoncourt was the first woman to lead PMA. (Boggs died in 2014 at the age of 92.)

Succeeding Boggs, of course, was d’Harnoncourt, the legend, who led the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1982 until her sudden death from cardiac arrest on a Sunday night in June 2008. 

The daughter of Rene d’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum of Modern Art, d’Harnoncourt grew up in Manhattan and went to the Brearly School and Radcliffe. The six foot tall scholar and Marcel Duchamp specialist has been described as “cool,” “aloof,” and “inscrutable.” 

D’Harnoncourt’s tenure was marked by high style and attention to detail, especially when it came to the press.

Press events were glamorous dinner affairs where the wine flowed and waiters worked the room Waldorf-Astoria style. At these affairs, one always looked forward to d’Harnoncourt’s comments, accented by her signature grin, humorous asides, a new flowing scarf or an Inca-inspired broach. D’Harnoncourt’s talks, like Rishel’s, were noted for some odd fact about the artist, or some offbeat story about how an exhibition came together. 

I think I speak for many Philadelphia Museum of Art press tour veteran journalists when I say that she was the kind of director you hoped would notice you in some way by perhaps taking you aside and chatting you up.

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Her 1971 marriage to Joseph J. Rishel, formerly of the Art Institute of Chicago and later PMA’s European Art curator, had insiders speculating on the couple’s private life. Was it a Boston marriage, an open marriage? In the museum world there are always undercurrents of gossip and hearsay. I later came to the conclusion that their marriage was somewhat along the lines of Philadelphia gentleman artist Emlen Etting’s marriage to socialite Gloria Braggiotti. 

In a 2008 biography of Emlen Etting (“With the Rich and Mighty: Emlen Etting of Philadelphia,”), author Kenneth C. Kaleta writes:

“A third Philadelphia social set, the art and museum set, integrated renowned artists with prominent sponsors and collectors. It comprised Philadelphia’s most creative (who made art) and the newly wealthy (who used their father’s vast turn-of-the-century fortunes to buy art to give them their own social patina). This social set centered on the talent for making or investing in art, and the range of talent from dilettante to genius was as varied as the range of incomes from rich to fabulously wealthy among them.”

Occasionally during the d’Harnoncourt years I would receive small anonymous notes in the mail after publishing a feature or a review of a PMA exhibit in the Philadelphia Free Press. The writer of the note would explain a gay subtext that was not openly addressed during the gallery tour. Sometimes these notes explained something about the artist, a story or reference to a scandal, gay of course. The anonymous writer was no philistine but a highly educated art historian type. I later came to the conclusion that the notes had to be from Joe Rishel. 

At Philadelphia Museum of Art luncheon press events in those days, table seating was sometimes arranged according to the “importance” of the publication a writer was writing for. 

New York Times and major art magazines writers sat at the front tables; Philadelphia Inquirer art writers like Victoria Donohoe (who died in 2018) and Edith Newhall sat at table 2. Writers for the city’s newsweeklies were placed in the back tables. If the New York Times didn’t show up for a gala press event, then Inquirer writers were moved up to table no. 1, and so on down the line. (When bloggers first started to appear on the scene, they were positioned behind the newsweekly writers not far from where the waiters congregated.)

I once commented on this seating arrangement in the Free Press, and at the next press luncheon I found myself at table no. 1 with the Los Angeles Times. 

Anne d’Harnoncourt seemed to read and notice everything. She was in many ways the mother of surprises. One day, she sent me an invitation by mail to be her guest, along with Inquirer arts writer Edith Newhall, at a lavish, private Waterworks Café dinner celebration for artist Thomas Chimes, in town for the opening of a 50-year retrospective of his work at PMA: “Thomas Chimes: Adventures in Pataphysics.” Newhall and I were the only two journalists in the city to be invited. Needless to say, since that time I have felt an intractable loyalty to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One of d’Harnoncourt’s lesser accomplishments was the arrangement of a small exhibit to honor the work of Paul Cadmus. Cadmus’s controversial magic realism painting, “The Fleet’s In!,” depicting a group of randy, drunken sailors on shore leave, was banned by the U.S. Navy in 1934. The PMA press event attracted few city journalists, but the no-shows afforded me quality time with the artist who died in 1999 at age 95. Cadmus was in his 90s at the time of the exhibition. 

When d’Harnoncourt died in her sleep, it was as if the city’s electrical power grid collapsed. 

“A specialist in modern art, she helped build the museum’s contemporary collections, acquiring works by Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and others,” her New York Times obituary stated. “By breeding and temperament, however, she was resolutely old-fashioned and provided a stark contrast to the new breed of wheeler-dealer museum director.”

Enter Timothy Rub, a graduate of NYU’s Institute of the Fine Arts, an art historian with a specialty in architecture. Rub was named the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s CEO in 2009.

Rub was no wheeler-dealer museum director, however. His “museum style” was similar to d’Harnoncourt’s. Like his predecessor, you could count on seeing Rub at almost every press event, high or low. Rub’s tenure would see the completion of the Frank Gehry addition initiated by d’Harnoncourt in 2002 when she asked the architect if he would help her with the museum expansion despite the fact that it would all be underground — in other words, minus a good deal of glamor. Rub’s architectural background seemed the perfect compliment to the Gehry transformation. 

[W]hile architecture and bricks and mortar is “permanent,” what I’m talking about has more to do with what is happening on the “floor” of the museum.

Once Rub was installed at PMA, I noticed a lot of new faces at PMA. Most were in their twenties and had that “I’m going to make it in the museum world no matter what” look. One could see that they were being “groomed” in the PMA style: the classic manners, a degree of physical attractiveness, a building sophisticated museum “aura.” A few of the new female hires reminded me of Grace of Monaco. 

After d’Harnoncourt’s death, the deceased director’s legacy was kept alive in the person of Gail Harrity, President and Chief Operating Officer of PMA who joined the museum in 1997. Harrity, formerly Deputy Director of the Guggenheim in New York, never seemed to have a frown on her face. When you saw or heard Harrity at a press event, even on the gloomiest and most depressing of winter days, you knew that all was right with the world.

But everything must change, even style.

Enter the scandal with Josh Helmer, a rising star in the museum world, a man so good looking that I recall several journalists at an event pointing him out as if he had fallen into PMA’s orbit from a Hollywood comet: “Who is he?”

Since much has been written about Helmer, I won’t go into details except to say that his story is a repeat of a time-honored classic theme: the misplaced use of power, sex, and libido in the halls of art and beauty. To be sure, “The Fleet” did come in when Helmer landed at PMA.

I will conclude with the Philadelphia Museum of Art press event for the opening of the Matisse exhibition, when museum workers held a one-day strike and walked in circles in front of the museum’s West entrance where journalists enter on press day.

I had a conversation earlier with Edith Newhall before our press group boarded a shuttle to the West entrance. Newhall told me she had decided not to go to the luncheon because she didn’t want to cross a picket line.

The luncheon was a huge dinner planned in the style of Anne d’Harnoncourt — place settings, menu options, white tablecloths, good wine. PMA’s communications director, the timeless Norman Keys, oversaw the massive dining room operation.

I wanted to attend the luncheon for many reasons, but mostly to see and hear the new director, Sasha Suda, a Canadian like Jean Sutherland Boggs, but as it turned out I was seated at a table with my back to the podium.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

2 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: More change comes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art”

  1. It wasn’t a one day strike, it was 19 days. You should correct this since your statement is grossly inaccurate and also minimizing.

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