Danforth Art Museum reopens to the public following a more than $6 million renovation: Museum showcases never-before-seen artwork in new location

From left to right: Danforth Museum Executive Director Debra Petke, Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, and FSU President F. Javier Cevallos cut the ribbon in the exhibition hall. (Tessa Jillson / THE GATEPOST)

By Nadira Wicaksana, News Editor

By Donald Halsing, Editorial Staff

By Thomas Maye, Staff Writer

The doors to the Danforth Art Museum opened once again – this time, at a new home on the Framingham Centre Common – during a ribbon cutting ceremony April 13.

The museum’s collections have not had a permanent home since September 2016, when the former museum closed due to a broken boiler, according to a press release from Framingham State University. 

The Danforth has since been acquired by Framingham State University and relocated to the nearby Jonathan Maynard building. 

Debra Petke, executive director of the museum, began the ceremony by expressing gratitude for her board, curator, collections manager, and trustees for their support throughout the complicated moving process. She also extended thanks to Framingham State University for housing the collection in the Maynard building.

She said, “Thank you for taking our collection. You literally gave the Danforth Art Museum a home and a future, so I thank you.”

According to Petke, the grand opening on Saturday, April 13 drew in 250 to 300 visitors, with a special reception for longtime members and donors. On Sunday, the community open house brought another 150 people to the museum.

Ed Adelman, executive director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority (MSCBA), said there were many challenges in the renovation process, such as financing the project, working with changing boards of directors, and managing bureaucratic conflicts over Framingham’s transition from a town to a city.

He said, “This project didn’t happen by itself. … I think it’s overstated, perhaps, but the whole is truly greater than the sum of its individual parts.”

According to Executive Vice President Dale Hamel, the total cost of renovation of the Danforth was $6,100,827, part of the “Cultural Arts Center Project.”

According to an April 1 “management agreement” document provided by Hamel, funding sources include MSCBA “held project savings,” the Danforth Trust Fund, and FSU itself. 

Of the funds, $2,287,846 came from “remnant funds held by the former Danforth Museum Inc. after receipt of funds for the purchase of the building and payoff of all liabilities,” Hamel wrote in an email. Furthermore, $200,000 came from gifts to the University.

In his speech, FSU President F. Javier Cevallos stressed the value Danforth facilities will bring to students, in addition to the Danforth’s larger commitment to making the arts accessible to the public. 

He said, “Now, Framingham State students have access to a free, first-rate fine arts museum just steps away from the campus, and the opportunities for enhanced learning and collaboration are truly, truly exciting.”

Petke expressed similar sentiments. “This is not just a reopening of the Danforth Art Museum. This is a whole new stage of growth – we are a new institution now, so not just a public art museum, but we are also, happily, a university art museum. Our mission and our community have grown, and we’re very excited to see where that takes us.”

Junior Elizabeth Goodreau, an intern at the Danforth, said she was excited for further student involvement at the museum. 

She said, “As an art history major and museum studies minor, Danforth is a great way for me to learn about the inner workings of an art museum and broaden my knowledge of museum studies hands on. 

“As the museum continues to grow, I hope that it can provide more programming and services to art majors, because it allows for so many opportunities,” Goodreau added.

Erika Schneider, who leads the museum studies program at Framingham State, elaborated on student involvement in the museum’s collection after the talk. 

She said students can use the facilities to practice archiving artwork and historical pieces, using databases for archival work, presenting exhibit displays, and using research to create informational panels for works on display – among other responsibilities. 

Schneider said she was excited for the school to make use of the resources available at the museum, adding the Danforth’s close proximity to the University will make the museum studies program “so much easier, especially for students without cars.”

There is also a Ram Tram route that goes to the Danforth Mondays to Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the tram runs 2:30 p.m. to 5:20 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it runs 8:30 a.m. to 7:20 p.m.

Currently, the three floors of the Maynard building each serve different purposes. 

The first floor houses spaces used by FSU woodworking, sculpting, and ceramics courses. Additionally, art professors Keri Straka and Elizabeth Krakow have offices on the floor.

The ceramics equipment was formerly housed in the basement of May Hall, which will be converted to studios for senior art majors. The pottery wheels at the Danforth are complemented by three kilns used to fire sculptures. 

Junior Rose Piz, an art and elementary education major, said she appreciated the added space provided by the Danforth ceramics facilities. “For me, I think the space is better because there’s a specific room just to make glazes, and the wheels aren’t all cramped against the walls,” she said. 

The third floor of the museum contains several workspaces for community art classes.

The second floor has several art galleries that display both permanent collections and rotating borrowed works. 

Schneider said the museum’s 3,000-plus-piece collection, filled with “little gems,” includes important American landscape portraits, prominent American history-inspired pieces from sculptor John Roberts, and works from African American sculptor and Framingham resident Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.

The Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller Gallery contains a large number of sculptures and carvings produced by the local artist during her lifetime. The Fuller family donated the entire contents of her studio to the museum.

Fuller’s art explored a “diverse” range of topics, according to the Framingham Historical Society website, including portrayals of African American life along with domestic motifs. The site says she worked alongside Auguste Rodin, famous for his sculpture, “The Thinker,” and was friends with author and civil rights advocate W. E. B. Dubois, who “visited her in her Framingham home.”

The gallery includes a replica of Fuller’s attic studio based on one of two known photographs of her workspace. Museum curators said they realized they possessed almost all of the artifacts visible in the photograph, and decided to replicate the studio as part of the permanent display.

Schneider said analyzing Fuller’s replica studio could be helpful in providing inspiration for art students, “showing the inner workings of an artist,” and displaying how Fuller interacted with her workspace.

The Corridor Gallery and Gallery 202 display more works from the museum’s permanent collection of “paintings, prints, sculpture, drawings, and photographs.” 

In the North Corridor Gallery, the museum has recent acquisitions on display. Currently, the works of painter Barbara Swan, part of the Boston Expressionists movement, are housed in this part of the museum. The Danforth called her “a dominant figure in the Boston art world in the last decades of the 20th century.”

Gallery 202A is a rotating gallery that currently displays “Armchair Travel.” The gallery walls are adorned with works from three contemporary photographers – Emily Bliez, Rachel Loischild, and S. Billie Mandle.

A Danforth informational pamphlet states, “This exhibition explores taking a journey but remaining close to home. Works on view, from three contemporary photographers whose work emphasizes attention to details, asks us to narrow and focus our idea of place and the landscape.”

The Susan A. Litowitz and Weinberg Family galleries contain a rotating exhibition of outside works. The curators decided to open the museum with works by Lois Tarlow, focusing on the shift in material she used to create her pieces from the 1950s to as recently as 2017. 

Petke said, “She uses a lot of different materials to express herself. One of the things that’s surprising about this show is that it looks like it’s the work of a lot of different artists, because it looks like she’s been constantly reinventing herself – even at 90.”

The deCordova Sculpture park and museum, which also displays Tarlow’s pieces, describes her work as follows: “Lois Tarlow’s paintings have an overwhelming depth that draws the viewer into scenes that simultaneously acknowledge desolation and survival. She captures both the rugged strength and the delicate homeostasis of nature’s lowland fauna.

“The artist treats her landscapes not as complex and complete systems, but as slivers framing only minute portions of the world.”

The current galleries will be changed July 2019, displaying more borrowed works and pieces from the permanent collection.

While the museum’s mission will expand with the University’s support, Cevallos said it was important to preserve the museum’s prolific collection, as well as the historical facade of the Maynard building. 

“We are committed to making sure the Danforth remains a cherished asset for the community at large,” he said. 

He called Framingham State’s acquisition of the Danforth a “win-win-win scenario, because the purchase not only strengthens the two institutions, but it also facilitates the renovations and the preservation of this building – the Jonathan Maynard building – the historical building that is an asset to Framingham.” 

Cevallos said the Jonathan Maynard building was once an elementary school, and that designating the area a historical site would “solidify” the building’s architectural preservation. After the talk, he added that he thought designating the area a historical district would attract tourism to the city. 

Before cutting the ribbon, Cevallos announced the front entrance to the museum will now be known as the Walsh Historical Entrance, after Rep. Chris Walsh, who represented Framingham in the Commonwealth and passed away from cancer last year.

Cevallos said as an architect, Walsh “was passionate about historical preservation and the structural importance of this project,” and “successfully advocated for support from the State House.

“He was a great friend of the University, and a personal friend of mine,” he said. 

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