Lynn Marsden-Atlass’ father was a businessman. He wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps.
Which explains why Marsden-Atlass started out her college career as an economics major. It didn’t stick, though—and Florence, Italy is to blame.
Touring Europe while in college, and still figuring out what she wanted to do with her life, Marsden-Atlass set out on a fortuitous trip to Florence. There, she discovered the power and beauty of Italian Renaissance art.
She also found her career.
“It was Florence that made me an art historian,” says Marsden-Atlass, director of the Arthur Ross Gallery. “I didn’t end up being a scholar of Italian Renaissance art, but I did become passionate about art. All through civilization people have created art. It’s something that we want to leave behind. And it’s also a great guide to human creativity.”
Throughout her career, Marsden-Atlass has held a variety of positions in the worlds of education and art. In the early 1980s, she taught art history through the Consortium of Colleges Abroad in Paris. She later served as director of the Colby College Museum of Art, curator of American and contemporary art at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and senior curator of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She spent five years at the Academy, and arrived at Penn last winter, replacing longtime director Dilys Winegrad.
The Current recently sat down with Marsden-Atlass to discuss her plans for the gallery, which she describes as a “little jewel” of Penn’s campus community.
Q. How did you end up at Penn?
A. I was a senior curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for the last five years. I had come to Philadelphia in 2003 after being specifically recruited for the Academy’s 200th anniversary exhibition. This was a big celebration. And then after a couple years I heard about this position, and that Dilys was retiring, and so I kind of decided on a whim to apply. I really didn’t know much about Penn. I knew Arthur Ross was a global gallery and that Dilys brought a wonderful and very broad range of objects to the gallery over the past 25 years.
Q. What intrigued you about the position?
A. Several things, actually. I have worked as a curator for about 20 years, but I’ve also been a teacher. I ran a junior abroad program in Europe. I had been an associate director of a college museum. It just seemed like a natural fit for me at Penn. It combines my loves of education and art. I also like working collaboratively, and Arthur Ross if nothing else presents global art from around the world and the opportunity to collaborate both within Penn—with faculty, colleagues and students—and work with the Philadelphia community, the national community and the international community.
Q. Are there advantages for a gallery being located on a college campus?
A. Yes, absolutely. We have tremendous resources. We have the wonderful resources of the Penn Collection, which I’ve yet to tap. And the other resource we have is the resource of human knowledge, among the faculty and staff and students. If there are any areas they’re interested in, they can bring their ideas to me and collaborate with me. A good example is our current show, “Kings, Chiefs and Women of Power.” We had another exhibit that had been cancelled at the last minute, and Kathy Curnow, who was doing a seminar with history students, was working on a project with Benin objects and the Iyare! exhibit at Penn Museum. She introduced me to a photographer by the name of Phyllis Galembo. I went and saw her work—she photographs native peoples from around the world. In 1993-1994 she had a Fulbright Scholarship to do some work in Nigeria, and the overlap [with Iyare!] was that she had some portraits of chiefs and women of power in the Benin Kingdom. It was a very nice overlap, and a contemporary tribute to those people in their native costumes. We could also borrow some objects from the Penn Museum, which is also a fabulous resource. They worked with me to help select the works. It’s just been a really nice collaboration. And I hope in the future to do the same with the ICA, and Kelly Writers House and maybe even various departments—hopefully engineering, and Wharton, the law school—so we can engage not only the people who might traditionally be interested in the arts, but also engage others from other parts of the Penn community and the wider community as well.
Q. What is your gallery’s audience?
A. Well, I’m hoping to grow that audience. My goal really is to engage the entire Penn community—students, faculty and staff. One of the great things about this gallery is that it’s a little jewel. You can see an entire exhibit in 15-20 minutes. I could do lunchtime talks and bring in various members of the community. That’s my goal. I hope to develop outreach programs for not only the West Philadelphia schools but also the other public schools in Philadelphia. I want to reach out to seniors and people of all ages. I’m very much of the opinion that art is for everybody. I think Arthur Ross has done a fabulous job over the years. Dilys built an audience. I’d like to expand that audience.
Q. How is the gallery supported?
A. The gallery has an endowed foundation through the generosity of Arthur Ross that helps provide the seed money for the exhibition program. Most of the exhibitions, we need to continue to raise money for, but at least the seed money allows us to hang and install the works. If we want to do a catalogue, though, that requires funding support. I see it as my task to expand the Friends program here at the gallery that has been established. I’m working on that. I’m working to raise the profile in Philadelphia and nationally of Arthur Ross’ vision for global art. I’m hoping to engage more students and more alumni. And I’ll have to be writing more grants, too. Given the economic situation, that’s going to be very competitive. I think we’ve had a history of about 100 donors who have been generous and supported us over the years in a fairly modest way. One of my goals is to grow that membership base and engage new people and help them support us. And we also have a natural constituency with alumni from the departments of art history and the fine arts.
Q. What is the niche that your gallery fills?
A. We can offer something that no other space can, I think. We have a different mission than the ICA, which does cutting-edge shows, and a different mission than the Penn Museum, which does archaeology and anthropology. As director here, I get to span all the ages and all the mediums possible. I think that broad range gives us a lot of possibilities to work with a lot of different people.
Q. Do you feel you’ve really found a good fit here?
A. Yes, I’ve worked on the gallery side. I’ve taught art history—19th century French art, American modernism, contemporary art. I’ve had a lot of varied experiences, and probably different experiences than somebody who comes out of school with a Ph.D. and just goes in one straight direction. I’ve had a lot of life experiences that make me a good fit for the Ross, both because of my educational point of view and my interest in so many other kinds of art.
I was actually in Malawi this summer, working with the African Children’s Mission, and I was looking for art in Malawi. This is an extremely poor country, and I was interested to see that, even in survival level conditions—one of the poorest countries in the world—people still created art. They do beautiful wood carvings. Very imaginative, simple things, but they still create art. I just think art is something that transcends even the economics of this very troubled time. The energy I get from art and the enthusiasm I have for it is something I love to share. And that’s something that never goes away.
Originally published Jan. 8, 2009