Philip and Muriel Berman of Allentown were the founding benefactors of The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, housed in a facility that formerly served as the College library and then the student center. In explaining their commitment to the Berman, Phil once memorably said, “We believe art should be seen; sculpture should be in public places and art should be in the arena of learning such as colleges and universities.” In turn, having an accredited, academically affiliated art museum on campus puts Ursinus in a select group of colleges. That gives Ursinus students a unique advantage.
Last month, my Perspective noted that the Berman Foundation had converted the loan of pieces from the family’s collection into a permanent gift of art to the College. That gift is being celebrated by the current exhibition, which is based on the 1,300 works bequeathed to Ursinus.
As new Berman Museum Director Charles Stainback will attest, a campus museum should not only enrich arts education on campus, but also enrich education through the arts. Our Museum contributes to the liberal education of all students. Art can be used for teaching across the disciplines, and its study and practice can make connections with the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The Museum also serves as a crossroads of campus life and a meeting place for the community.
Foremost is how the Museum and its collections can make a difference in the lives of our students. A case in point is Kelsey Bullington-Hodge, a History and International Relations major. Kelsey also has been enrolled this fall in a Museum Studies class under the direction of Stainback and Matt Shoaf, Chair of the Art and Art History Department. Students in the class took part in curating the striking exhibition A to Z: Highlighting the Berman Collection. Her experience informed the project she has proposed as one of our nominees for the Watson Fellowship, which offers graduating seniors from selected schools the opportunity to pursue study and travel abroad.
In “The Art of Communication: Exploring How Visual Art Sparks Dialogue in Post-Conflict Societies,” Kelsey proposes to explore the role of visual art in promoting communication across dividing lines in countries that have experienced devastating civil conflict. With the help of museum professionals, she wants to explore how art is used in post-conflict societies to start conversations and prevent the recurrence of conflict. Kelsey’s experience reflects Stainback’s goal of making the Museum a hub for the exchange of ideas between students and faculty, fostering new ideas and connections between objects, and enriching the educational experience of students across fields of study.
Experience in the Museum also emboldens students to pursue careers in art. One example is junior Bernadette Calderone, a Classics and English major who is interested in curating classical art. “Working at the Berman has sharpened my attention to detail,” she said. “Now when I visit other museums, I don’t just see the exhibit – I see how the art is hung or a piece is labeled, or what the curator decided to show or hide. The Berman has given me an entirely different perspective of the art world. Consequently, when I look at something such as a presentation, project, or paper, I don’t just see the final product. I see the work, research, and planning that goes behind it.”
The Bermans’ journey as collectors echoes the stories of many Ursinus students who gain perspective and discover passions that they never would have imagined. Phil Berman, who worked in the family trucking business, did not foresee that art would be his adult avocation. But as the Bermans studied and visited artists, their knowledge and enthusiasms grew, and they began to collect the art and prints of Rembrandt, Gericault, Goya, Whistler, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, and Gilot, many pieces of which are included in the Berman Foundation gift to Ursinus.
A recent visitor, Professor Selma Holo, Director of the University of Southern California’s Fisher Museum of Art, validated the importance of liberal education as embodied by Ursinus and the Berman Museum. After touring our campus, she spoke before a conference of the Art Historians of Southern California and then wrote to us, “It was such a pleasure to be able to refer to Ursinus College, to the leadership of President Bobby Fong, and even to be able to mention the important grant you have recently been awarded from the Mellon Foundation—in partnership with Columbia University—to develop new approaches together to core curricula. These are critical moments for the humanities (indeed, for higher education) and Ursinus is clearly at the center (and even taking the lead) in some of the most important conversations around the role of the humanities in developing educated women and men for our own time.”
The Bermans knew that art could facilitate informed citizenship. “Art proved for them to be a means of self-education, community engagement, cultural expression, and even social justice through making art public, accessible, and ever present,” Nancy Berman told our students. “They wanted to share that with others. . . .the arts are the basis for creativity not only for the arts but for all sorts of problem-solving in what seems distant disciplines, such as science or business.”
I hope we will continue to support the Berman Museum of Art on campus, not only for the sake of its wonderful art, but also for its impact on the entire curriculum.
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