Over the past 20 years, the Palmer Museum of Art has added 4,000 objects to its collection, undergone a renovation that resulted in a new 3,100-square-foot gallery, and expanded its outreach programming to include music performances and poetry readings.
Those are just a few of the accomplishments Jan Muhlert will be able to look back on with pride when she retires from her position as director in December 2016, after two decades of service. The museum, which has had only four directors since it was established in 1972, will soon launch a nationwide search for its next leader.
When Muhlert took the helm in 1996, the Palmer Museum was still finding its footing after an extensive expansion and renovation project in 1993, which added ten new galleries to showcase the museum’s growing permanent collection. Since then, the museum has not only grown its collection to approximately 8,200 objects, but also gained a strong reputation for its holdings in American art.
John Driscoll, Penn State Alumni Fellow, member of the Palmer Museum of Art’s advisory board, and owner of Driscoll Babock Galleries in New York City, said Muhlert has brought “tremendous stability” during an important time in the museum’s history. “She has been very effective in building the collection. … Under Jan’s stewardship, the collection has become one of the best in the Big Ten, and, in some areas, one of the best in the country. That is a real testament to her leadership.”
Muhlert, a longtime member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), led the Palmer Museum’s entry into the prestigious organization, which includes only 242 institutions—and just 50 college/university museums—from throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “AAMD is the jewel that you want your museum to be part of,” said Muhlert. “When the Palmer became a member, we gained greater visibility and credibility.”
According to Barbara Palmer, longtime museum benefactor, Muhlert will be a hard act to follow. “She has been an outstanding director. She is a terrific asset, with a great eye, and is very knowledgeable about all operations and facets of the museum,” said Palmer, who, with her late husband, James, gave the lead gift in 1986 for the museum’s subsequent expansion and has also made extensive donations of American art. “It’s hard to believe that Jan has been here for 20 years, but time flies when you’re having fun!”
During her tenure at the Palmer, Muhlert’s focus has been on “selectively” growing the collection, which she said is critical to creating an art museum with a wide variety of works and artists represented. “When I came here, it was becoming clear that American art was a key part of the collection, and the staff and I have worked hard to build up and fill out that collection, which is shown primarily in the Hull Gallery, named for the museum’s founding director, William Hull, and the Snowiss Gallery, named in memory of Benjamin and Lillian Snowiss by Alvin and Jean Snowiss.”
Exhibition highlights under Muhlert’s leadership include, among others, Red Grooms and the Heroism of Modern Life (1998); A Baroque Bequest: A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mary Jane Harris (1999); An American Sculptor, Seymour Lipton (2000); An Endless Panorama of Beauty: Selections from the Jean and Alvin Snowiss Collection of American Art (2003); An Intimate Eye: Selections from the Collection of James and Barbara Palmer (2005); and Luminous Allure: Studio Glass from the Collection of Norbert and Audrey Gaelen (2015).
Barbara O. Korner, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, said Muhlert has guided the Palmer Museum to become a valued cultural asset not only at Penn State, but throughout Pennsylvania. “Thanks to Jan’s leadership, the museum has become a highly respected institution, known not only for its superb exhibitions, but also its extensive outreach programming that has drawn many new patrons to the Palmer. She has positioned the museum to continue to grow in visibility and credibility beyond Penn State and the local community to embrace a national reputation.”
Muhlert has led her staff of 12 in developing diverse programming related to the museum’s exhibitions, which include both traveling exhibitions and exhibitions of works from the permanent collection. A highlight, she said, is the “Paper Views” exhibition series, a monthly one-day exhibition during which works on paper are showcased.
“The ‘Paper Views’ exhibitions have really caught on and are engaging different people—faculty, donors, students. They allow us to show so much more of our collection of works on paper, which can only be shown for short periods of time for conservation reasons.”
Other programming launched under Muhlert’s leadership includes the “Art of Poetry” and “Art of Music” series, outdoor concerts on the Palmer Museum plaza, and a jazz series in collaboration with WPSU. Most of the museum’s outreach events are supported by the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art, who also organize the museum’s annual fundraising gala.
“Educational programming is included in just about everything we do,” said Muhlert. “We look for any way to give people a chance to go in the galleries. For example, when we have a jazz concert, the galleries are always open.”
Muhlert is retiring with almost 50 years of museum experience, having previously worked at the Smithsonian Institution, University of Iowa Museum of Art, and Amon Carter Museum. She has been active in both the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, holding several leadership positions. Locally, she has served on the board of directors for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and the steering committee for Partners in Public Service, a collaborative project with Penn State University Libraries and Public Broadcasting.
Photo by Alex Bush