Wilson students see art that once hung in their school

A Doylestown exhibit includes art that's been out of sight since 2004.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Students at Woodrow Wilson Middle School took an eye-opening trip this month to the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Bucks County.

The trip was particularly special for the kids from Wilson because the museum was featuring Pennsylvania artists — including 13 paintings that had hung in the school at one point or another. The exhibit also included two copies of The Patriot, the school’s newspaper.

“See this, this painting used to hang in Mrs. Ressler’s office.” said Kim Colasante, the art teacher at Wilson Middle School, pointing to “A Horse and Two Dogs in a Landscape” by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Charles Dudley, principal at Wilson from 1928 to 1950, built the school’s art collection, appealing to local artists to sell their oil paintings to the school for $300 or less. He believed that art would inspire children.

Colasante said Wilson “was known for art and multiculturalism.”

Colasante tries to work that art history into her classroom, assigning projects like “About Me,” which the students are working on now; it will connect their diverse backgrounds to the art that the students create.

Adrienne Romano, the Michener’s director of innovation and education, curated the exhibit. She studied Philadelphia artists for her master’s degree and has now been studying their work for 20 years.

The exhibit is significant because some of the works had been out of sight for more than a decade. Hundreds of paintings, antiques, and other items were removed in 2004 from many Philadelphia schools. The School District said the art was too valuable to be hanging in schools without tight security. The collection’s value has been estimated at $4 million.

The Michener exhibit includes works from Philadelphia, from the New Hope-Solebury, Pennridge, Quakertown and Souderton schools, and the Bucks County Intermediate Unit.

“The paintings [from Wilson Middle School] are all on loan from the Philadelphia School District,” Romano said. “Unfortunately, they are stored in a vault because the schools are not equipped to handle the art.”

“The idea is to keep the work safe and available,” said Steve McGlynn, a public relations account manager working with the Rose Group, a local business that has partnered with the museum to provide arts education for students in struggling districts.

The school art collection had been kept in a secret location, and it took a court order, sought by a retired teacher, to get a full rundown on the works being kept in the vault.

But now, some of that art is on display at the Michener, and for the Wilson students, seeing art made by people who came from the same place as they do is a huge deal.

“It makes me feel popular,” said Jada Thyman-Gaines, a student at Wilson.

“It’s pretty cool. It makes me feel better about the school,” said Leylani Rodriguez-Perez, another student.

The Doylestown trip was a nice change of pace for the students, most of whom don’t leave the city often. Most Wilson field trips are within Philadelphia.

“We went to Penn,” said Leylani, “and a Jewish museum this year.”

The Doylestown trip was free for the students, arranged by the Rose Group.

“We’ve had kids come out from all over the Delaware Valley area, into New Jersey, the Lehigh Valley, Montgomery County, Chester County and now Philadelphia,” said Kathy Erdie, the marketing manager for the Rose Group. “In total, we’ve had more than 42,000 students and chaperones.”

This was the first group from Philadelphia; the students often have trouble with transportation to the museum, which is about 40 miles away. For this trip, Art Serve covered the students’ travel expenses.

“Art Serve is an endowed fund, managed by the museum, meant to serve underserved individuals,” said Melissa Easton-Sandquist, manager of community programs and group visits at the Michener. “Handicapped adults, bilingual families, groups from Doylestown Hospital.”

The Michener exhibit will continue until Jan. 7. After that, the Philadelphia art will go back into storage.