By Christine H. O'Toole
The Green Room off the balcony of the grand Music Hall Foyer is lofty, ornate—and usually, empty. Designated a century ago as the Ladies’ Withdrawing Room, where modern women could smoke in privacy, it’s been the office of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Women’s Committee since its start in 1957. Members of the volunteer committee, ranging in age from their 30s to their 90s, support the museum’s acquisitions, openings, and outreach programs so energetically that they are rarely found inside.
Ever spot those blue-jeaned laborers tending the planters in the museum courtyard? They’re the ones. How about the docents leading visitors through the most recent exhibition? Likely them, too; the committee started the docent program nearly 40 years ago, and many members conduct gallery tours. The hostesses and decorators for the annual children’s Christmas tree party and the designers of the glittering galas? Yes and yes. The savvy fundraisers who’ve delivered millions of dollars to the museum’s renovations and capital campaign? The same. The group that helped the museum acquire treasures like Marc Newson’s curvaceous Lockheed Lounge, and even a much-needed forklift? Ditto.
“The Women’s Committee tries always to be a complement to the museum’s ambitions, and that’s a shifting field,” says Carnegie Museum of Art Henry J. Heinz II Director Richard Armstrong, who calls the group his “right hand.” Over the years, the committee has interpreted its mission to support the museum’s cultural and educational prowess in the region with projects as diverse as annual open houses for senior citizens and the founding of the city’s Three Rivers Arts Festival.
Beginning in April, the museum will reverse the spotlight and pay tribute to the Women’s Committee’s far-reaching contributions in honor of the group’s golden anniversary—50 years of serving the Museum of Art and its patrons.
Inside the galleries, 20 additional objects acquired with the committee’s help will join the 30 already on display throughout the museum’s permanent collection, all noted with special recognition. And while the 50th anniversary celebration will focus on the artwork, the committee’s work literally permeates all aspects of the museum’s daily life.
“If the Women’s Committee didn’t exist, the void could not be filled—not because of any one woman, but because of its collective commitment to the Museum of Art,” says David Hillenbrand, president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. “When I first arrived at the museums, I was amazed to learn all that the committee does, and its members continue to amaze me with their service and tireless commitment.”
The committee has retained a formal structure of elected officers, with the president representing the group on the museum’s board. Current members sponsor new candidates, and those leaving active membership can continue as advisory members. In total, the committee has 215 volunteers.
The Ground Floor
Like many of the volunteers, Ranny Ferguson’s first vivid memories of the museum stretch back to childhood. “The museum seemed so enormous. To me, the Music Hall Foyer was so frightening,” recalls Ferguson, the committee’s current president and a retired math and computer education teacher. “That’s a first impression for many kids—they’re a bit fearful.Our greatest goal is to make this a family-friendly place, where children and adults realize the beauty of art, and that it is for them.”
For sisters Mernie Berger and Lowrie Ebbert who have served on the committee since its inception, the museum was an easy bike ride from their childhood home on Northumberland Street. “We went often—and always to the Internationals, which were then held every year,” Berger recalls. “We used to call the natural history collection the ‘dead zoo.’” In 1957, the two young mothers were tapped as members of the committee’s Junior Council, which merged with the senior group 14 years later to constitute today’s Women’s Committee.
Gordon Washburn, director of Carnegie Museum of Art at the time, recognized a need for the group, and in 1957 he organized a fact-finding trip to the St. Louis Museum of Art, which had already convened a women’s committee. Among the Pittsburgh founders who traveled to St. Louis was Mary Wertz, mother of Berger and Ebbert. “We always felt we were lucky to be invited to be a part of it. We were in on the ground floor,” Berger recalls.
Lack of experience didn’t deter the group from forging projects new to the museum. Early efforts pushed the museum towards the city, instead of the city to the museum.
“Too many people felt the museum was formidable,” recalls Berger, echoing Ferguson’s observation. “We also wanted to expose local artists to the community.” Intrigued by the success of Boston’s outdoor arts festival, the committee proposed a similar project for Pittsburgh. The result, the first Three Rivers Arts Festival, debuted in 1959; its first co-chair, Babs Widdoes, later became the festival’s first executive director.
“The Festival was a very concrete example of the Committee’s willingness to be ambitious,” says Armstrong. “Their most salient characteristic is that they’ve been interested in the relationship of the museum to the city since their beginnings.” He cites the Committee’s leadership in the purchase of Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture Forest Devil as another way the group “took the museum outside its own walls.” Built by the artist specifically to be placed in Mellon Square for the 1977 Arts Festival, it has remained downtown but is owned by the museum.
Another successful community fundraiser was the museum’s Carnegie Treasures Cookbook, spearheaded by member Edith “Toto” Fisher—a former teacher, Women’s Committee president, and co-founder of the museum’s docent program. Published in 1984, with a glowing foreword by American chef and food writer James Beard, who called it “brilliantly planned and highly diverting,” the book raised $150,000, and allowed the museum to purchase Frank Lloyd Wright’s Twin Bridges Project Point Park, Pittsburgh (1947). The drawing is housed in the Heinz Architectural Center.
Not all the committee’s first efforts were unalloyed successes. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” says Mernie Berger. “But everything we did was a lot of fun.” She delights in recounting early mishaps. A classic June tornado during the first arts festival “threw all the paintings in the river.” And the Junior Council’s first event, an exhibition of English toy theaters, was a decided bust. “We did our first preview, even before our mothers’ group did—and nobody came! We always laughed about that.”
Back inside the museum walls, the Committee has made sizeable contributions to the museum’s infrastructure. A million-dollar endowment launched in 1987 helps fund ongoing museum acquisitions. One of the best-known results is Maurice Prendergast’s 1915 Picnic, whose colorful figures face Monet’s Water Lilies in the Scaife Galleries. A year later, the Committee’s Restor-ation Gala financed the refurbishing of the “Noble Quartet,” the four magnificent bronzes of Shakes-peare, Michelangelo, Bach, and Galileo that dominate the Forbes Avenue facade of the original Oakland museum. In 2002, a $1 million gift from the Committee to the museum’s capital campaign was earmarked to renovate the Scaife Galleries. Other purchases include dozens of paintings, 40 films, 15 sculptures, prints, drawings, and watercolors. A separate donation funded a forklift, which in 2002 helped to hang Panopticon, a survey of some 500 treasures from the museum’s collections presented in the style of a 19th-century salon with art installed floor-to-ceiling and encircling the room.
Picnic is one of Ranny Ferguson’s favorite examples of how the committee engages the public inside the museum. The group threw an informal community party to kick off a public campaign to purchase the giant piece of artwork in 1972, charting money raised by coloring in a huge sketch of the work. “We reached out to the community, and they really felt they owned the work,” she says. “Even if kids put in a quarter, it belongs to them. I’d like to do more of that in the future.”
While the Committee has decades-long traditions of annual events like Senior Citizens Day, the holiday trees and preview party, the Holiday Party for Special Guests (which brings more than 200 special-needs children, young adults, and care givers to the museum every December), the Founders-Patrons event, which honors the benefactors of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Decorative Arts Symposium, it’s flexible enough to change with the times. An all-volunteer holiday gift shop matured into a sleek, professionally-staffed retail space when the Scaife Galleries were completed in 1974; and the $14,000 in profits from the volunteer effort funded the shop’s first inventory. The Antiques Show, a spring staple since 1992, will be replaced with another event in 2008. The traditional slide shows that the outreach committee takes to community groups each year to highlight the museum’s collection have now gone digital.
Leading by Example
“In the beginning, we served a purpose we no longer serve, because there weren’t many staffers,” recalls one Committee founder, Jean McCullough. “For instance, I did the exhibit window in the Union Trust Building on Oliver Avenue in those years. We couldn’t use paintings, so we did decorative arts displays. I knew Herbert Weissburger, the museum’s first curator of decorative arts, and with his permission I had leeway to go into the museum basement and pick out whatever I wanted to show. I’d put it into the back of my station wagon and head downtown.”
McCullough, who fondly calls the museum her second home, says the role of the Committee has subtly changed. “Our main functions today are fundraising through events, and helping to plan museum events. But it’s more than just fundraising. In so many other ways we are a catalyst for
Director Armstrong credits the Committee with providing seed money for the museum’s 2000 Aluminum by Design exhibition before other donors committed; and they eventually followed its lead. After the groundbreaking exhibition—which toured the world—received glowing international reviews, the committee helped the museum purchase works for what is now one of the world’s foremost collections of art objects designed in aluminum.
A love of the arts unites the women’s group, from elders like McCullough to 34-year-old Brenda Roger. Their backgrounds vary, and members appreciate that diversity as much as the art. “They’re interesting people,” says Roger, a handbag designer who joined the group last year. “There’s a real feeling of support and comraderie. It’s fun to pitch in with a common interest.”
Peggy McKnight, whose professional background is physical therapy, calls the committee “one of the most dynamic groups of women in the city. We are very involved with other organizations, and working or raising a family. It’s a gigantic, smart group,” she says.
“We donate time because this museum is a heritage we feel strongly about,” stresses Ferguson. “Volunteerism is becoming to some extent a lost commodity. Women’s personal time is shrinking. But we know that we benefit from this effort, too.”
Founding member Mernie Berger agrees. “You always get more out of it than you give. Always. And it continues to be exciting and fun.”
A Year in the Life of the Women’s Committee
2006 was another busy year for the Women’s Committee. We follow them from activity to activity during their calendar year of September to June.
October: Decorative Arts Symposium. The Women’s Committee sponsored and coordinated lectures and a luncheon in conjunction with this annual Carnegie Museum of Art event. The 2006 theme was “Tiffany.”
November: Founders Patrons Dinner. Preparations for this Tiffany-themed gala included Tiffany-inspired centerpieces hand-crafted by Women’s Committee members.
Holiday Tree Display. Continuing a 50-year tradition, committee members again decorated giant holiday trees in the Hall of Architecture the weekend after Thanksgiving. Planning for next year’s theme is already in motion.
Holiday Tree Preview Party. Tireless committee members again coordinated their annual cocktail party—a local holiday tradition!
December: Holiday Party for Special Guests. Fulfilling their mission to reach out to those who may not be able to visit the museums on their own, the committee hosted its annual holiday luncheon for about 200 physically and mentally challenged children, young adults, and caregivers from around the region.
April: Rethinking Antiques, Works from the Golden and Modern Ages, the 14th Antiques Show. The committee again coordinated the region’s premier antiques show and sale that mixes high-quality antiques with fine examples of 20th-century design. Forty dealers from the United States and Europe participated with thousands of objects for sale.
May: Senior Citizens Day. The Women’s Committee played host and provided tours of both Oakland museums to about 300 senior citizens at this annual event.
Ongoing: Three to five times a month, excluding the summer months and at no cost, the Women’s Committee’s Outreach Committee visits garden clubs, women’s service organizations, and church and synagogue groups around the region to deliver presentations on collections from the museum, mostly led by committee members who are also docents. Topics include: masterpieces in glass, arts and flowers, Carnegie Treasures (permanent collections), Neapolitan Presepio and the history of the holiday tree display, Carnegie Women (new for 2007), and chairs from the permanent collection.
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