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University museums often feature divergent art holdings, acquired as they are through gifts, bequests, or purchases to expand existing collections. In that respect, the just-opened Maguire Museum at St. Joseph’s University is no different. But now, removed from its former (and extremely cramped) quarters, it is elegantly housed in one of the region’s most beautiful historic buildings: the former home of the Barnes Collection.
Designed by the early 20th-century “starchitect” Paul Cret, this iconic building housed the Barnes collection from 1925 until 2011, when the institution decamped for Philadelphia. This Beaux-arts building is nestled in the 12-acre Barnes Arboretum, and in 2018, the university struck an “affiliation agreement” with the Barnes Foundation just as alumni benefactors James J. and Frances M. Maguire made a major gift.
This confluence enabled St. Joseph’s to engage the Philadelphia firm DIGSAU, who in 2019, led a sensitive renovation that upgraded the building’s systems and accessibility. They maintained the building’s style and proportions but expanded and brightened some of its airy spaces, preserving its unique ambiance.
Collections from across the world
St. Joseph’s was founded in 1851 as a Jesuit university, so some holdings reflect that religiosity. Its major stand-alone collections, unrelated to one another, include classical works of colonial Latin American and Hispano Philippine art, African art, Asian art, 20th-century European and American art, a cast collection (reproductions of classical sculptures), stained glass, and retablos and ex votos. Each collection is displayed in designated galleries on two floors.
The Maguire has also planned a series of rotating exhibitions (some focused on university departments) through spring 2024. The first two (through Sunday, June 25, 2023) are the multi-artist offering Shifting Ecologies: Contemporary Artists and the Environment and a collaboration by two university departments called Form and Function. Works from these temporary exhibitions (less successful) add some confusion in separating them from the permanent collection.
The museum’s director is Emily Hage, also a professor of art history, and she is joined by a professional staff headed by Carmen R. Croce, the university’s longtime curator. Croce has assiduously and enthusiastically cared for this disparate collection over five decades. His joyfully knowledgeable presence, coupled with a deep sense of history, was one of the highlights of a recent preview, in advance of the Maguire’s Tuesday, May 6, opening.
The university’s two most striking collections are its stained-glass windows and its collection of retablos and ex votos, both Croce’s particular interests. An expert on stained glass, he was co-editor and contributor to Stained Glass in Catholic Philadelphia, a volume open for perusal in the jewel-like gallery where a selection of the university’s more than 100 sacred and secular windows are displayed. Though the room is small, it successfully evokes the hushed atmosphere for which these works (many from decommissioned churches) were created and where they were originally situated.
Croce is also highly engaged with the university’s unique, riveting, and very fine collection of Mexican and South American retablos, ex votos, santos, and milagros. These are small, colorful devotional images in the folk-art or outsider tradition, created mostly by anonymous artists using the materials at hand. Outside the downstairs coat room is a whimsical collection of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sculptures, but an upstairs gallery holds the real treasures.
On view, there are historical examples from the 18th and early 19th centuries and contemporary pieces. Especially engaging, on many levels is Covid Retablo (2021-22), created by Peruvian artist Claudio Jimenez Quispé. It is filled with multiple references to the pandemic that manage the nearly impossible: to be both thought-provoking and engaging.
A stable future
There is also a compelling room devoted to the original designs and drawings for Cret’s beautiful building. A master draftsman, expansive thinker, and Philadelphian for three decades, Cret was one of the early 20th century’s most compelling presences in architecture and design. His works are traversed (probably unseen and unappreciated) by Philadelphians daily—he designed many of the city’s bridges—and as well as this building, his fine smaller works include the city’s Rodin Museum and the Folger Library in Washington DC.
The home of the new Maguire Museum has a storied pedigree, and now a stable future. It’s notable that the university’s widely divergent holdings mirror in some ways the eclecticism of the Barnes collection, housed in a new-old museum re-structured to accommodate and celebrate artistic diversity.
What, When, Where
Frances M. Maguire Art Museum, open to the public May 6, 2023. Free admission; suggested $10 donation. St. Joseph’s University, 50 Lapsley Lane (access from City Avenue), Merion Station. (610) 660-2802 or sju.edu/maguire-art-museum.
The Maguire Museum is an ADA-compliant venue with seating in six galleries, permanent collection wall text in English and Spanish, and Braille signage.
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