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Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Early Spring, 1966-67; watercolor and charcoal on paper, 37 1/8 x 42 1/4 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Charles Rand Penney, 1994

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Early Spring, 1966-67; watercolor and charcoal on paper, 37 1/8 x 42 1/4 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Charles Rand Penney, 1994

At Brandywine museum and conservancy, a vibrant intertwining in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


That an expansive exhibition of work by painter Charles Burchfield is about to open at a Philadelphia-area museum is not an everyday event.

Burchfield, who died in 1967, may not be well known here - he lived in Ohio and upstate New York - but he is considered one of the finest watercolorists ever to ply the trade in North America.

"Breathtaking," wrote critic Christopher Knight of a 2009 Burchfield exhibition in Los Angeles.

For Philadelphia, the exhibition is certainly welcome because it is unusual. But perhaps just as unusual is the venue: the Brandywine River Museum of Art, run by the Brandywine Conservancy, in Chadds Ford, Delaware County - nationally known for its embrace of all things Wyeth.

The museum, which has one of the nation's largest institutional holdings of works by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth and other painters of the so-called Brandywine River School, does not own a single work by Burchfield, known for his existential realism and fantastical landscapes.

But "Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield," which opens Aug. 23, is the first manifestation of an ambitious new museum and conservancy push - an effort to expand offerings, tie museum and conservancy more closely together, increase the whole operation's cultural footprint, and entice new audiences and supporters to the banks of the Brandywine.

It's not a change of focus, says Virginia A. Logan, executive director of the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, the parent organization of both the museum and environmental programs. It's the old focus writ large.

"The world is changing and there are new generations of people who support conservation and who support the arts," Logan, who has headed the organization since 2011, said recently in her office overlooking the river.

In the face of change, the conservancy wants "to keep the best of what we have" and add to it with the introduction of "new programs and new ways of doing things . . . to bring in that next generation."

George A. "Frolic" Weymouth, board chair and a founder of the organization, said the way forward does not represent a radical shift from the past: "We've been protecting land and water and presenting great art for almost 50 years, and that's still what we're doing."

But Logan and Thomas Padon, museum director since 2012, have taken a fresh look at both land and cultural programs.

The museum attracts 100,000 visitors a year and the whole organization operates on a $9.6 million annual budget, Logan said. The conservancy owns about 300 largely contiguous acres around the museum, part of the roughly 1,250 nature-preserve acres it owns directly and the 59,000 it watchdogs through conservation and agricultural easements.

Direct landholdings are about to nearly double, thanks to a bequest by Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in July. Scaife, a longtime board member, left the conservancy a 900-acre estate in Westmoreland County, southeast of Pittsburgh, $15 million to maintain and conserve it, and half his collection of American art (the other half will go to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg).

Neither Logan nor Padon knows exactly what is in that collection, which is still being inventoried, but both are eager to find out. The fact is, however, that the museum and conservancy are already into their new expansive mode.

One planned effort will eventually lead to creation of trails and programs guiding visitors to the historic properties owned by the conservancy - the studios of N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth and the farm of Karl and Anna Kuerner.

More immediately, the museum has commissioned a site-specific installation by Brooklyn artist Matthew Jensen, to open the same day as the Burchfield show. Jensen has been walking the Brandywine acres, photographing as he goes.

"He's going to be experimenting with printing images on plywood, a very new technology," said Padon. "He's kind of discovering the layers of history and metaphor, and of course the visual layout of the Brandywine. This installation . . . is very different for us. We've never commissioned an artist to do a piece."

In 2015, the museum will present a major Horace Pippin retrospective, the first since 1994's Judith Stein-curated Pippin exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Next will be an exhibition of Los Angeles photographer James Welling, who is also working on site-specific installations.

Wyeths will not be ignored, conservancy officials hasten to note. Jamie Wyeth's first major retrospective, organized by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, will arrive at the Brandywine in January.

There are also many connections between new exhibitions and the Wyeths. Museum director Padon said he learned that Andrew Wyeth, a prolific watercolorist, actually visited Burchfield in 1945. Photographer Welling was strongly influenced by Wyeth, and the photographs he is working on for the 2015 show will explore his "visual memory" of the painter.

"James Welling was very interested in Wyeth's own discovery of place. In particular, Jim is really interested in the way Wyeth used light," Padon said. "So Jim has photographed here and up in Maine, going to places that have had resonance for Wyeth. . . . He's interested in the way through photography he could manipulate his work in the same way Andrew Wyeth did. It's going to be interesting to see an artist looking at the work of another artist across decades, and across media."

Logan and Padon hope all the new programs and shows work to weave the museum and conservancy together, while maintaining the Brandywine's established identity.

"These new exhibitions and programs make sense as part of our mission," said board chair Weymouth. Not surprisingly, Logan agrees.

"We have something that other museums don't have - we have these historic properties," she said. "Two artist studios and the Kuerner farm, where a huge body of Andrew Wyeth's art was created - between those things and the fact that as a land conservancy we've protected a lot of the land that inspired the paintings. We have the opportunity to provide a way for a visitor to not only see the art in context but as a kind of layered experience that is very different from anywhere else."