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Lunch with Mimi: Erin Coe Takes the Helm at the Palmer Museum of Art as It Moves Toward Expansion

by on June 25, 2018 5:00 AM

Named director of the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State in September 2017, Erin Coe is focused on steering the museum in a new direction with plans for a proposed relocation and expansion of its programs. Prior to accepting this role, Coe was director of The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, since 2015 and served as chief curator from 1999 to 2014.

The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is a free-admission arts resource for the university and surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania. With a collection of 8,850 objects representing a variety of cultures and spanning centuries of art, the Palmer is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Areas of strength include the museum’s collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present, Old Master paintings, prints and photography, ceramics and studio glass, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The museum presents 10 exhibitions each year and includes 11 galleries, a print-study room, 150-seat auditorium, and outdoor sculpture garden.

Born and raised in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Coe earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a master of arts degree from the University of Albany, State University of New York, and worked on a PhD in the history of art and architecture at Boston University. Coe now resides in State College with her husband, Douglas Cramer, a senior architect at Penn State.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Coe at The Allen Street Grill to discuss her transition to Happy Valley, her plans for Palmer’s relocation, and the expansion of its programs and art collection.

Mimi: Well, Erin, so nice to have you here.

Erin: Well, thank you for inviting me.

Mimi: I'd love to ask you about your transition from upstate New York where you were for 18 years to Happy Valley, which is a totally different environment. How did you react to that?

Erin: Like yourself, others that I've encountered in the community have pointed out to me what they perceive to be differences, but when I came here, I saw the similarities. Although there are certainly differences between where I was living in upstate New York and central Pennsylvania, they are both small communities where everyone knows each other.

Mimi: What about the sophistication?

Erin: It depends on what you mean by sophistication. There’s a much larger population in upstate New York, but I've met equally sophisticated people here in State College. There are some great collectors and philanthropists here and there's a strong culture of philanthropy at Penn State. You have to also keep in mind that in the capital region of New York, within a 75 mile radius, there are around 20 museums so there was a lot of competition.

Mimi: Did that make you better?

Erin: The competition forced you to network a little harder and be at your competitor’s gala and events to see what they're doing. Actually, I saw them more as my friends and colleagues than competitors, but when I was looking at coming here I thought this was a great opportunity because it's different when you're the only game in town versus being one of some 20 museums. I was excited about coming here because I can really make a difference.

Mimi: The biggest change I notice is the conduct of the advisory board meetings, of which I have the pleasure and privilege of serving. At that first advisory board meeting, you sent us all out of that room prepared to do more because of your outward personality, and you’re probably going to have a lot of fun.

Erin: I'm having a great time. I really appreciate the support. The advisory board meeting was wonderful. There was a real sense of energy in the room and synergy around common goals, and thinking about where we want to take the museum. I sense a lot of alignment around my vision for the Palmer. And, as the new director, this is immensely gratifying.

Mimi: Were you pretty much on your own at your old job?

Erin: Yes. I would say one of the differences between my old job and my new position at the Palmer is that I was flying solo, more or less. I had a governing board, a board of trustees, but here I'm part of Penn State; I’m part of a larger leadership team and infrastructure. I have more partners and colleagues, and I feel like I'm part of something.

Mimi: Well, you have a dean that wants to make a difference from the day she arrived here.

Erin: She does. And she's the one who hired me. I always look at a museum from the perspective of the visitor. This is what I was thinking about when I first entered the Palmer as a candidate, the first thing that you saw before we did the reinstallation was 16th and 17th century Baroque paintings on dark red walls, and I was surprised because this was not my perception of the Palmer as an outsider, someone who was coming from outside Penn State. My perception of the Palmer was that it was a museum of American art and that this is its great strength. So, when I was candidate I had this moment where I knew I could make an impact with a new installation. The ideas starting flooding in from there.  

Mimi: A new generation.

Erin: I'm looking at things differently, with a more critical eye. The question for me as a museum director is how would I want the visitors to experience the Palmer? And, I knew right away that we could improve those precious first impressions. When I was a candidate, I was surprised that the last gallery on the tour was where most of the American art collection was on view. I wanted it to come first. So, when the dean asked me for feedback on the museum, I said, well, I think the layout has to change. You need to lead with American art; you need to put that first, in front of the visitor. She thought it was a great idea. And, so, over the summer I spoke to Patrick McGrady, the then-interim director, who welcomed my thoughts since the museum was closed for renovations and all of the art was off the walls. We discussed the reinstallation and I asked him, how do you feel about flipping it, starting with American art, and he said to me, “That's a wonderful idea.”

Mimi: You are facing a future expansion and the possibility of an art destination adjacent to the Arboretum. Give us some indication of how that's progressing.

Erin: I believe we're making great progress. When I first arrived in September it was still an idea. It was a seed that hadn't started to sprout. Now it’s growing, it's taking shape.

Mimi: Have there been any big gifts to it?

Erin: No, there are no big gifts yet, but there's momentum and commitment by Dr. Barron and senior leadership at Penn State to move forward with this project in a more purposeful and strategic way. I think rather than it being a dream, it’s becoming more of a reality. That's the most I can say right now.

Mimi: Let's flash back to the collection of American art, which is quite notable now. But on the horizon are significant gifts of American art that will come to the Palmer through the next 10 years. What happens in the meantime?

Erin: In the meantime, what we're working on is off-site storage for our collection. As you know, the museum is at maximum capacity. Right now we are anticipating major gifts of American art and contemporary studio glass to start coming our way in the near future. I have been having meetings with OPP at Penn State looking at some off-site storage options for the Palmer in buildings that the university owns that could potentially be renovated and converted into state-of-the-art art storage.

Mimi: Barbara Palmer and I were in a discussion about the Discovery Space in State College and its focus on STEM for young people to learn at an early age. Well, now they've expanded into a bigger building and in my conversation with Barbara, the idea evolved of putting some art there so that little kids could learn about art and begin to have a sense of appreciation. We decided that she would lend one of her Lipton sculptures to the Discovery Space. And now when kids walk into the Discovery Space, the first thing you see is this curious sculpture. Apparently, it's a real attention grabber. I felt if we could do a better job of getting art in front of young children and talking about it more, there would be more people who come to museums.

Erin: It starts in childhood; studies have actually shown this. Children who are exposed to museums are more likely to become museum-goers as adults, are more likely to become members and supporters of museums. It's harder when you're dealing with visitors say in their 30s or 40s where going to a museum is an entirely new experience. It's more difficult to convert those audiences than it is someone, like me, who grew up in museums. My parents took me to museums as a child, so I was already one of the converted. I already believed in museums and their value in society.

Mimi: The museum has some pretty good programs for children.

Erin: Yes, we do. We serve the local schools in our community with our docent-led K through 12 tours. We work with teachers on curriculum connections and how the museum can serve in that capacity. And, we have a very popular Saturday morning program called “Stories for Little Eyes and Ears,” which pairs the reading of a book to children with a work of art in the gallery. But, we don't have a space where kids can make art and get messy. We don't have a studio space where children can have that critical experiential, hands-on component. That's what we could offer in the new museum. In the new museum at the Arboretum, we could have those classroom and maker spaces. What I also want to see happen at the Palmer is that we do more outreach in the community and develop programs by partnering with organizations like Discovery Space. We recently hired a new museum educator who starts in June and she has a lot of experience with developing outreach programs. I believe that we need to work on programs together because two heads are always going to be better than one.

Mimi: So, what didn't I ask that I should have?

Erin: I’d like to add a word about the importance of arts advocacy. I think the economic impact of the Palmer Museum and other arts and culture venues in our community cannot be overstated, though it often goes unnoticed. They provide countless opportunities for our community and visitors from outside the region to engage with the arts and enhance the quality of life. But the arts are also big business and several recent national studies have shown the extent of the economic impact of the arts including right here in Centre County. I think the exhibition Plastic Entanglements, which has significantly boosted our attendance this year, demonstrates our potential. It’s leading the way and I’m still in the process of formulating goals for the museum with the staff to increase the museum’s visibility and impact. It seems to me that the Palmer is a hidden gem. My job is to make it shine.

Mimi: They’ll have to get you some parking.

Erin: Yes, we need parking. And that's why we need the new museum too, because the parking is an issue.

Mimi: I want to thank you.

Erin: Thank you, Mimi. I really enjoyed this.


Town & Gown is a monthly publication in State College, PA. If it's happening in Happy Valley, it's in Town & Gown.
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