The round front desk had just been moved from the Kunkel Building, SAM’s downtown home for 10 years, and placed in the lobby, ready to receive visitors.
The atmosphere was notably relaxed, absent of anything resembling last-minute anxiety.
“We’ll be ready,” stated Laurene Buckley, SAM’s confident executive director.
At 6 p.m. on Jan. 16, the front doors will draw open to the public for the first time. All eyes are on the project, hoping that the museum will reshape the Harrisburg area’s experience of learning about, appreciating and making art—and maybe have a hand in reshaping the city, as well.
“It’s a huge catalyst for the entire city, not just the Midtown area,” said Mayor Eric Papenfuse. “It’s building on the energy that is already there but is going to see a lot of transformations next year.”
Founded in the 1970s, SAM always lived in rented or borrowed space, and Harrisburg laid claim to the dubious distinction of being one of the few state capitals without a dedicated art museum.
A $5.5 million state grant, plus $1.5 million raised by SAM, finally changed the picture. In late spring 2014, shovels hit dirt at the former Keystone Bank building at N. 3rd and Calder streets, constructed in 1916. The renovation and an addition give SAM 20,000 square feet of its very own display and operations space.
Like Papenfuse, Joshua Kesler stressed the importance of SAM’s expansion and relocation to a new, permanent home in Midtown. The developer of The Millworks nearby paused long enough in preparations for his own early 2015 opening to note that the museum’s decision in 2010 to occupy the historic Midtown bank was the encouragement he needed to buy a former warehouse and factory and convert it to restaurant, bar, art studios, gallery, music venue and beer garden.
“The art museum is a one-of-a-kind for central Pennsylvania,” Kesler said. “It’s a complete game-changer for the city and especially Midtown.”
On the day I visited, light flooded in through the bank’s tall windows, made to look historic but actually energy-efficient replacements for the originals that couldn’t withstand renovations, said Buckley.
The original vault door stood open but immobilized at the rear of the lobby, there to add a touch of history and because “there’s no way to get rid of it,” said Buckley. “We’d have to dynamite it out of here.”
The vault, made cheery with green, blue, orange and brown carpet tiles, will host weekly story time for young children and their parents. Stories will be related to SAM exhibits or other art themes, and sessions will end with art-making activities.
“This is really going to be a place where families can feel comfortable and at home,” said SAM Education Manager Tina Sell. “We’re breaking away from the idea that museums are a place where you have to behave 100 percent of the time. This is a place where you can relax and enjoy and still make some connections to artwork.”
SAM plans to be as much about creating and learning about art as displaying it. An education room will host classes, including after-school sessions for advanced students in anime manga comic-book drawing. A first-floor hallway will display works created by local artists or SAM students, or pieces related to the main exhibits.
The DOSHI Gallery, a longtime SAM partner devoted to contemporary works, will display in the lobby gallery for three months out of the year—a change that has upset some DOSHI artists and supporters. However, ongoing negotiations between SAM and DOSHI over such items as the number of shows and the jurying process “are looking pretty good,” Buckley said.
Upstairs, in SAM’s 3,500-square-foot main exhibit hall, visitors will interact with art. For the inaugural exhibit, “Pop Open: Icons of Pop Art from Niagara University,” visitors can play with old-fashioned projectors to create Lichtenstein-style comic-strip art or channel their inner Warhols and turn their shadows into live, multi-colored offset lithography.
For the following exhibit, “Everyone Can Fly: Faith Ringgold’s ‘Tar Beach’ & Regional Picture Book Illustrators,” the museum will recreate the rooftop getaway from Ringgold’s children’s classic.
“So, you’ll be able to go and lay out and daydream,” said Sell.
Outside the building, a mural by Messiah College professor Daniel Finch will grace an outside wall overlooking a sculpture garden, which will be completed by late spring. Additional ways to brighten up the exterior and streetscape are still under consideration, Buckley said.
“We haven’t quite figured out how we’re going to explode the outside with something colorful,” she said.
SAM’s interactivity extends into Midtown, where museum officials hope to contribute to the neighborhood renaissance. The museum is partnering with everyone from Yellow Bird Café for food for its own café to HACC for parking. The gift shop will sell art books pulled from Midtown Scholar’s warehouse.
Midtown Scholar inventory manager and head book buyer Sarah Ludwig had just been choosing pop-art books when TheBurg called to ask why the partnership works.
“We’re hoping that art and reading go all together, especially the way books are made today, especially art books,” Ludwig said. “They’re like a piece of art themselves sometimes, so hopefully it all melds together very nicely.”
Papenfuse, who owns Midtown Scholar and is a SAM board member, said SAM’s entry into the neighborhood has “got us very, very excited at the bookstore.”
As for the two bars across the street from SAM, including one involved in a drug raid in August, they “are going to clean up their acts and go more upscale, or they’re going to have a hard time surviving with the new energy and dynamic that’s happening in Midtown. The city’s not going to tolerate illegal activities and continued drug dealing,” said Papenfuse.
Kesler said that the Millworks is conceptualizing with SAM on “how to integrate our customer base.”
“What we’re really looking for is people being able to make a day in Midtown,” he said. “Going to Midtown Scholar, going to the Broad Street Market, going to the art museum and the Millworks. We see those projects as the real keystone of rebuilding Midtown.”
Food, books, art, drink—“That sounds like a Saturday to me,” Kesler said.
New museums are springing up nationwide, at Harvard University and in New York, in Miami and in Westmoreland, Pa., reports the Association of Art Museum Directors. A 2012 University of Chicago study found that small cities joined in a cultural building boom from 1994 to 2008, although it found “no clear pattern of spillover effects (negative or positive) of specific cultural building projects on non-building local cultural organizations and the greater community.”
And while greater Harrisburg has high hopes for its shiny new museum, SAM officials are concentrating on art of the people, by the people and for the people.
“Art is for everyone,” said Sell, the education manager. “The museum is not supposed to be a place just for art students, just for art collectors. It’s for people to get to know themselves and get to know each other, hopefully, a little bit better.”
The Susquehanna Art Museum is located at N. 3rd and Calder streets in Harrisburg. It opens its doors to the public for 3rd in The Burg, Jan. 16, at 6 p.m., with the inaugural exhibit, “Pop Open: Icons of Pop Art from Niagara University.” More information about the museum is at www.sqart.org.
The museum’s hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Monday by appointment. General admission is $8 and $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans. Children under 12 are free.