Special to The Herald-Mail
How often have we all driven by City Park Lake and enjoyed the iconic image of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts that sits on the knoll on the far side of the lake from Park Circle?
It is a view that most of us have seen many times in person driving or walking by the park. It is a memorable and idyllic view and has become a symbol of our city and county. It regularly appears on tourism and other promotional materials highlighting our civic, cultural and quality of life amenities that make Hagerstown and Washington County a special place to live, work and visit. But how well do area residents really know the museum? When was the last time you visited, and are you aware of all the programs, activities and ever changing exhibits occurring inside its walls?
As a kid, I grew up near the museum, several blocks south of the City Park. We rode our bicycles constantly around the neighborhood and would regularly ride through the park on Park Drive and stop to visit the museum when the weather was nice.
I thought every city the size of Hagerstown had an art museum like we do. It wasn't until I was much older and doing a research paper in college for an art appreciation class, that I realized how very special our community was and continues to be. Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is one of only four accredited fine art museums in the State of Maryland and the only one in Western Maryland. Two are in Baltimore and the other one is on the Eastern Shore.
I didn't know how unique and special the public — private collaboration was that created our museum just prior to the start of the Great Depression in 1929. A nonprofit entity for the museum was created by act of the State Legislature. Agreements were signed with the city and county governments which donated land and pledged operating support for the museum. Founding benefactors Anna Brugh and William Singer Jr. donated funds for the construction of the museum and contributed works of art to the museum from their personal art collections.
Hagerstown-born Anna Brugh Singer and husband William H. Singer Jr., a native of Pittsburgh and a gifted artist, conceived the idea of an art museum in Hagerstown's City Park. They envisioned an institution that would be free to the public and would, in Anna's words, "enrich the lives of our fellow citizens." The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts has been fulfilling the Singers' dreams for 80 years.
The museum opened its doors to the public in 1931 in the midst of the Depression. Since that time, the museum has continued to thrive and grow.
Over the years, the museum has expanded several times and has become recognized as one of the finest small fine arts museums in the United States. The museum's art collection has grown as well over the years and now includes more than 7,000 works. Only a small portion of the museum's world class collection is displayed at any one time.
The museum regularly offers art studio courses, educational programs, concerts, events and exhibitions from its permanent collection and other traveling and loaned collections. The museum's goal through its mission is to ensure that visitors gain a better appreciation and understanding of the fine arts. Admission to the museum continues to be free, but public support is needed.
In 1954, under the leadership of Museum Director Bruce Etchison, a membership program was created to bring the people of the community in closer relationship to the museum and to help the organization with rising costs of maintenance and operation.
Since that time, members have been the heart and soul of the museum by providing monetary support as well as essential volunteer participation. What is membership all about? What are some of the myths or misconceptions surrounding membership? It is time to debunk the myths and welcome new members to this "treasure of Washington County."
Probably the most wide-spread misconception about the Washington County Museum of Fine Art arose from the mandate given by the Singers when they donated funds to build the museum.
According to an agreement struck with officials in Hagerstown and Washington County, the museum was to be "maintained thereafter with public funds." This arrangement worked effectively for close to a quarter of a century and led to the belief that the museum was, in fact, a function of local government.
As demands on public funds increased in a growing city and county, so did the needs of the museum. By this time two new wings, gifts of Anna Singer had been added to the original structure and appropriations from city and county had decreased as a percentage of the overall museum budget. The museum had to find other sources of revenue and membership became an important piece of the income pie. Today, the city and county provide approximately 20 percent of operating funds while still generously supporting special projects such as the new enclosed atrium and parking lot and walkway improvements.
Another myth is that museum membership is exclusive. In accordance with the Singers' wishes, the mission of the museum is to bring art and art education to everyone. Individuals, couples and families from every walk of life are invited to become part of this unique center of social exchange and cultural enrichment.
"See it, hear it, feel it," the membership slogan for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, captures the museum's founders' vision for the museum they established.
There are plenty of activities that incorporate the mantra of "See it, hear it, feel it." Take an art class. Come to a Sunday afternoon concert or program. Something new is going on practically every week. There is truly something for everyone.
Membership is not expensive. There is a membership level for every income. Every membership dollar helps the museum maintain the high quality for which it is known. The museum needs you.
So why would you want to join if admission is free? The benefits of membership are many and varied and include enhanced communication about museum activities, invitations to Members First Preview Days, receptions and programs, discounts at the gift shop and reduced admission for selected educational programs, classes and trips. In honor of the museum's special 80th anniversary year and in order to increase awareness and participation, a special membership initiative has recently been launched. Through June 2012, membership fees for new members or members upgrading their level of membership giving have been reduced.
So, come inside. Stop just driving by and admiring the view. Join the museum. Find out what is happening there each week throughout the year. Come inside and actually experience all the treasures, performances and learning opportunities the museum has to offer. It is so much more than that pretty building sitting across the lake.
Al Martin is retired finance director for the City of Hagerstown, a community volunteer and a member of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts chairing its Membership Committee and Advisory Board.
Annual individual memberships, good for 12 months from when they were purchased, are now $19.95. Family memberships are $39.95 per year. Art Lover memberships are now $100 for the first year. This membership category provides reciprocal privileges with numerous other participating museums across the country. Other membership levels have been similarly discounted for new members or members upgrading their membership level for this promotional 80th anniversary event.
Go to www.wcmfa.org or call 301-739-5727 to learn more about membership or to sign up.