A new look, more space for Westmoreland museum

More space for Westmoreland Museum of Art

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg has undergone an extensive renovation and expansion.

Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Charlene Bidula, manager of communications at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, stands in the newly renovated building. The first exhibit guests walk through shows the progression of building plans for the museum. Photo:Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter

GREENSBURG – The pillars outside the Westmoreland Museum of American Art were once so imposing that people would anxiously call the museum before visiting, wondering if they should get dressed up in their Sunday best for the occasion.

Not anymore. Following an extensive, two-year renovation and expansion project anchored to a $38 million fundraising campaign, the museum that houses paintings by such homegrown greats as Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer has a new facade that museum officials hope will be more inviting, and more than 13,000 additional square feet of space in which to show off its wide-ranging collection.

The message of the relaunched Westmoreland Museum of Art is that “the museum is for everybody,” according to Charlene Bidula, its manager of communications.

Located a stone’s throw from the courthouse in Greensburg’s bustling downtown, “Nobody should feel unwelcome,” Bedula added. “The museum, inside and out, reflects who we are.”

Founded in the 1950s by art enthusiast Mary Marchand Woods, whose collection formed the backbone of the museum in its fledgling days, the reinvention and expansion of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art has been in the works since 2009. In 2013, the museum closed its doors on Greensburg’s Main Street and moved its offices and part of its collection to a temporary location so the refurbishment could get going. The interior of the existing building was completely renovated, down to the floors that are now a little easier on the feet.

Then, 13,287 square feet were added to the structure’s east side in order to accommodate space for community and educational programming, as well as new galleries. A gallery on the second floor creates more room for traveling exhibits, and a community room on the lower level of the new wing has been created for lectures, private events such as weddings and concerts by the Westmoreland Jazz Society, which has a long partnership with the museum.

In a statement, museum Chief Executive Officer Judith O’Toole remarked that “the transformation of the existing building and the addition of a dramatic east wing, all set in a lush landscape, is breathtaking. The new and restored galleries are seamless, and the newly enhanced collections are impressive.”

Along with the structural changes, the museum has also made an important substantive shift – before the renovation, it limited its collection to works before 1950, pretty much staying on the path carved out by Marchand Woods over 60 years ago. Now, the museum is displaying a selection of works made in the decades since, which should further help it shake off any lingering image of fustiness. According to Bidula, the museum has long wanted to expand its focus, but was only able to do so after it received a gift from Diana and Peter Jannetta, Pittsburgh-area philanthropists and museum supporters who donated 130 pieces of contemporary art from their collection to the museum in 2011.

Another adjustment: Rather than paintings being displayed on walls at, more or less, the standard eye level, the museum is adopting a salon-style presentation, which has art in some galleries basically climbing up the walls. It’s visually striking and also enables the museum to show off more of its holdings.

While the changes at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art reflect the natural ebb and flow of long-running institutions looking to shake off some dust and enagage in makeovers, it also fits in with a larger trend of museums seeking to reposition themselves in a populist world with shortened attention spans and plentiful options for diversion. Museums both large and small across the United States have been attempting to pivot away from the notion that they are highfalutin’ repositories of art with a capital A, mostly by long-dead figures that one hears about in a school and promptly forgets about.

To that end, the Westmoreland museum has fashioned a vibrant and colorful space it has christened the Center for Creative Connections. Allowing visitors to draw and take part in other hands-on activities, such as a model landscape with interchangeable parts that shows how Southwestern Pennsylvania was transformed from agrarian to industrial economies, Bidula said that portion of the museum, while attractive to children, is also adult-friendly.

“The trend is toward more interactivity,” she explained.

To mark its reopening, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is also mounting an exhibit of works given to the museum by Richard Mellon Scaiife, the late publisher of the Tribune-Review newspaper and one of the museum’s key benefactors. “A Passion for Collecting: Selections From the Richard M. Scaife Bequest” includes 85 works. All told, half of Scaife’s art collection went to the museum upon his death in July 2014, with the other half heading to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, outside Philadelphia.