Nearly a half century ago trouble was brewing near the peaceful village of Chadds Ford.
When local artist George “Frolic” Weymouth learned the beauty of the Brandywine countryside might be blackened by the construction of several factories, he partnered with some close friends to purchase 40 acres of riverbank meadows. In 1967, the Brandywine Conservancy was born.
A few years later Hoffman’s grist mill, built in 1864, was restored and adapted by architect James Grieves for use as an art museum. The three-story brick structure opened in June 1971, rising proudly over the Brandywine River. Attracting 100,000 visitors annually to art exhibitions and related programs, the museum is celebrated for its embrace of all things Wyeth, a fine collection of American illustrations, and still life and landscape paintings.
Heading into its 50th anniversary in 2017 and the centennial year of Andrew Wyeth’s birth, the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art (BCMA) is embarking on an ambitious program that will further expand and link its dual mission—art and the environment. The end game: to garner new supporters and provide different ways for visitors to not only see the art in context, but as a kind of layered experience that is truly distinctive from museums anywhere else in the country.
“This is an exciting moment for our organization as we look forward optimistically to the future,” says Weymouth, 78, the founder and Chairman of the BCMA.
“To see how the organization has grown over the years is incredible. Our emphasis on art and the environment is what got us started, it was unprecedented, and it remains our focus now.”
When executive director Virginia Logan and museum director Thomas Padon came on board in 2012, they took a fresh look at Andrew Wyeth’s twin passions for art and the environment. The result has been an ambitious new push to expand the partnership’s offerings with innovative new programs and initiatives.
It’s not a change of focus, it’s an amplification, insists Logan from her office overlooking the Brandywine River.
“It is a new era for our organization as we continue to lead in land and water conservation and expand our art programming for the public,” she says. In her former working lives, Logan was an attorney, an executive with Sunoco, Inc. for 25 years, and was also on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale.
Logan wants to share the museum’s collection of 4,000 works of art with broader audiences and bring in a younger generation (age 18-45) of supporters.
The Brandywine Conservancy is the watchdog for protecting the natural and cultural resources of the Brandywine watershed through its conservation and agricultural easements working with landowners and government officials to preserve land and water.
Trey and Deirdre Flemming’s approach to growing food at Miller’s Farm aligns perfectly with the Conservancy’s expanded mission. In 2012 the couple relocated their business to 262 acres of farmland, woodlands and sensitive natural areas owned by the Conservancy just north of Downingtown. It’s a place where hillsides are stitched with rows and rows of sustainable veggies and fruits that are toted to local farmers markets and are the bounty of its year-long CSA program.
“The most important form of support for today’s small farmer is access to land,” says Trey Flemming. “It gives us great confidence partnering with such a prestigious organization. By growing and selling food locally, we can benefit our community and demonstrate the importance of farmland preservation.”
Another planned effort is the creation of 300 acres of walking trails open to the public and hands-on artistic and ecological experiences at the historic properties owned by the Conservancy—the studios of N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth and the farm of Karl and Anna Kuerner. Initial improvements have been made to the river trail with the balance to be completed within five years.
Reforestation is another major focus. The goal of the Conservancy’s “50 by 50” project is to plant 50,000 trees by its 50th anniversary. It’s more than halfway home. One Saturday last October, a total of 2,200 trees were planted at Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook on the east branch of the Brandywine. Planting trees enhances water quality and restores natural flows while also promoting absorption of rain into the ground, which replenishes and reduces storm water runoff and downstream flooding.
That beautiful, bucolic countryside was Andrew Wyeth’s palette—the sky, the grass, the animals and modest houses and people he had called friends since childhood inspired a significant body of his work.
“I don’t paint these hills around Chadds Ford because they’re better than the hills somewhere else,” Wyeth once said. “It’s that I was born here, lived here—things have a meaning for me.”
Last fall Wyeth’s house and studio were named a National Historic Landmark. This designation puts the studio in the company of the Kuerner Farm and the N.C. Wyeth House and Studio, all managed and made open to the public by the Brandywine River Conservancy & Museum of Art.
The art museum’s new initiative will take a broader context to American art, tapping into American artists whose works possess a true affinity to the Brandywine Valley. It was launched last summer with the exhibit, The Lure of the Brandywine. Next up was a superb exhibition on Charles Burchfield, who along with Andy Wyeth, is among the greatest American watercolor artists of the 20th century.
“Burchfield was a great artist to start off with, he exemplifies the broadening of our exhibition approach,” Padon says. “Though their works are very different in style, both Wyeth and Burchfield drew constant inspiration from nature through the landscapes surrounding their homes and studios.”
In April, the museum will present a major Horace Pippin retrospective, the first since 1994’s Pippin exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Pippin (1888-1946) was a self-taught West Chester artist whose bold and colorful works reflected life in the African-American community and commented on race, religion, war and other social issues of the day.
The Pippin exhibition will also offer an opportunity to partner with the Barnes Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PAFA, the African American Museum and other venues on educational programs to raise the Brandywine’s visibility not only in this region, but also to attract new visitors from New York, Washington and Baltimore.
In August Things Beyond Resemblance will explore the mechanisms of influence of one artist upon another. Using color photography, James Welling evokes Wyeth’s aesthetic, particularly the importance of place as the photographer journeys to the Kuerner Farm and other iconic sites in Chadds Ford paying homage to Wyeth’s practice of altering reality in his seemingly realistic paintings.
Another innovative approach will be temporary site-specific installations by artists as they respond to the landscape of the Brandywine’s 300-acre campus.
“What they will be working on will be inspired by that specific site,” Padon says. “It could be comprised of natural materials from that area, or perhaps replicating the landscape in another material. It could stay one day or six months. They will reflect a sense of that place, the power of the landscape.”
Karl J. Kuerner III is the grandson of Karl Kuerner Sr., a former soldier in the German Army during WWI who came to Chadds Ford in the 1920s. Andrew Wyeth painted many of his iconic pieces beginning on the Ring Road farm in the 1930s. Karl II donated 33 acres of the family farm to the Brandywine Conservancy in 1999.
A respected artist himself, Karl III taught art students at the farm last summer in hopes the landscape will inspire the next generations of artists in the region.
“All along, the farm belonged to the art world,” Kuerner says. “I’ve always been a big believer in arts education. You’ve got a new regime over there, new ideas, a chance to enlighten new people about the museum and the historic properties. They want to make it into a major museum, which is great.
“However, there is a real concern about privacy, one neighbor is very upset. Does that mean more shuttle buses? My dad still farms, so he doesn’t want people traipsing through his hay fields. It’s a double-edged sword. But, I believe that if they do their homework properly, they can satisfy everyone.”
The goal is to increase attendance at the museum to 200,000 over the next five years. It will be a balancing act: introducing more and more people to places that have long been preserved.
“We want to be a good neighbor where we execute this new push in a way that is thoughtful, beneficial to the community and not intrusive,” says Logan. “We want to keep it a quality visitor’s experience, but add new layers to the experience which will keep us relevant to the next generation who want to support both the arts and conservation.”