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The museum is her canvas

March 25, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

"Where in Ohio is Hagerstown?" an art collector asked Jean Woods at a New York City luncheon several years ago, not too long after she became director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in 1982.

Ohio?

"First we had to make them aware of where we are," she says as she explains how she has brought into the public eye the 73-year-old fine arts museum poised on the banks of City Park Lake in Hagerstown, Md.

Woods, who is celebrating her 20th year on the job, has helped to put Hagerstown and its masterpiece museum on the fine arts map. As a result of her efforts, many in the art world have come to know and respect the museum for its collection, and the drive of its director.

The museum was founded by Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer and her husband, artist William Henry Singer Jr., and incorporated in 1929. Singer expanded the museum in 1949, adding two wings in memory of her late husband. The most recent addition - at a cost of $3.3 million - opened in 1995.

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Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, The Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art are the three accredited fine art museums in Maryland.

In Woods' 20 years, the museum's art collection has grown by several thousand works. The museum endowment fund increased from less than $400,000 to more than $3.7 million. Museum membership has grown from fewer than 300 to 1,600 members and the volunteer force has grown from a handful of people to more than 200.

With that kind of math, it's no wonder the number of visitors coming to the museum has increased from 27,000 a year in 1982 to 68,000.

Frank Di Prima, art collector and attorney who lives in Convent Station, N.J., has never set foot in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, but he knows about it. The museum has a "very nice reputation for the probity and the quality of the collection," DiPrima says.

He learned about the museum through a Chicago gallery that specializes in American art, and has loaned and donated work. Among his gifts are an 1898 painting by Otto Bacher, "A Month of Violets," donated in 1994. Last year he made a gift of "The Picnic," an early 20th-century still life by Louis Ritman. He plans to visit in May.

Michael Merson, a Baltimore art collector, has given the museum several primarily 20th century works, an area of the collection that Woods wanted to develop, he says. His donations, made since the 1980s, include paintings, pottery and glass.

Merson says he loves the museum and would like to see it get more public funding. He calls it a terrific educational resource in the region.

"I think it's a little jewel."

Woods does more with limited resources than anybody he's come into contact with, Merson says.

"She's very eclectic," he says. He visited most recently about a month ago. The museum never gets stale, Merson says.

Woods became acquainted with Washington County's "little jewel" when she was growing up. "My family is very oriented to musems," she says. She recalls coming from Ligonier, Pa., to Hagerstown City Park for picnics and to visit the museum with her mother and grandmother when she was a child.

She studied business administration at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and earned her masters in mass communications at the University of South Carolina. She wrote for businesses and later edited medical books. Woods also has taken art courses at New York University and at Winterthur in Delaware.

Is Woods an artist? Does she make art?

She says she occasionally sketches and laughs that she has written some very poor poetry.

But it could be said that the museum is her canvas, and she uses a broad palette to paint its picture.

The museum's primary focus is on 19th- and early 20th-century American art, but its 12 galleries showcase a collection that includes Old Masters as well as contemporary works. There are works from Europe and Africa as well as decorative arts.

There are big names - Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rockwell. And there are works by perhaps less known but important artists, including John Frederick Kemmelmeyer, Hagerstown's first known painter; Sarah Miriam Peale, the first woman professional artist to make her living totally by her art; and the nation's first known African-American artist, Joshua Johnson.

How do people come to make gifts of valuable art to the fine arts museum in Hagerstown?

"The art community is really a very small community," Woods says. "One thing leads to another ..."

But to build a collection, museum directors have to be persistent.

Museum directors have to "beg, borrow and steal" says Bob Mayo, a retired museum director and gallery owner who lives in Gloucester, Va.

"She's a hustler," he jokes about his friend Woods. He has donated and loaned work to the museum in part, he says, because Woods does a good job.

"Jean really makes it an important museum in the museum world of America," Mayo says.

How is art work selected for the musem?

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