Allentown and Its Museum

The Subject City built the Hamilton Mall, a two block shopping area intended to bring more people into the downtown area.  It was a pedestrian walkway only.  With the closure of Hess’ Department Store, the Hamilton Mall went downhill rapidly.  Somehow a Hilton Hotel managed to survive in the middle of a block.  There are two sites worth seeing at the south end of the walkway.  The first is the Allentown Museum.  This place offers the usual changing of exhibits.

Many people ask why would someone from Philadelphia make the trek to Allentown just to see an art museum.  There already are so many big ones in Philadelphia; but that is exactly the point.  When going to a big place, people often rush wanting to cover the entire area. This is simply not possible.  Especially as tourists,  you often leave a large museum disappointed not seeing enough.  When visiting Allentown,  you see the entire museum in detail at a leisurely pace in two days. There is a real sense of satisfaction and learning.  That alone, together with a beautiful exterior, make the Allentown Art Museum a good attraction.

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The Allentown Art Museum was established through a grassroots effort led by the teacher, painter, and critic Walter Emerson Baum (1886-1956). Founded and incorporated during the Great Depression (1934 and 1939, respectively), the Museum served the local community for 20 years in a city-owned Federal-style house, primarily exhibiting the works of area artists.

In 1960 and 1961, a gift of 53 Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures from Samuel H. Kress (a native of nearby Cherryville, Pennsylvania) brought the Museum to a new level. The Kress gift stimulated community visionaries and Museum friends to purchase and refurbish a building suitable to house the new collection. The Museum stands on that location today.

In 1975, an expansion to the building was completed to enhance the Museum’s programs and collecting plans. At the time, the Museum installed a room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of its permanent collection.

The collection, still largely defined by European paintings in 1975, expanded with a large collection of textiles and another gift of works on paper. The 1978 acquisition of Gilbert Stuart’s beguiling portrait of Ann Penn Allen, granddaughter of the founder of Allentown, set the benchmark for the qualitative standards of the collection. The Museum’s goal, to develop an American collection parallel to the quality of the European collection, is one that the Museum is well on its way to achieving.

In 2010-2011, the Museum underwent renovation to include approximately 10,000 more square feet of gallery, storage, and public space. Another 25,000 square feet of existing facility was also refurbished.

Today, the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley embraces the broadest possible audiences, offering tremendous variety and quality in our collections and exhibitions, educational and popular programs, and a busy calendar of public events. We serve over 100,000 participants annually, of whom more than 14,000 are children in school programs.

The Museum’s collection of more than 17,000 works of art offers our community the opportunity to experience nearly 2,000 years of cultural heritage in an accessible and visitor-friendly environment.

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