Enjoy the present


Gifts from prominent collectors are in the news these days at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the rich permanent collection has just grown fatter.

The collectors are Harold and Ann Sorgenti, Dr. and Mrs. Perry Ottenberg, and Vivian and Meyer "Pat" Potamkin. As with many discriminating collectors, they became experts in their chosen fields.

The Sorgenti collection of African-American art is the centerpiece of a current exhibition at the Academy called "Layers of Meaning: Collage and Abstraction by African-American Artists of the 20th Century," open through April 20. Harold Sorgenti is a former chairman of the board of the Academy and a well-known chemical-industry executive with ARCO. His interest in African-American art goes back to the 1950s, following a gift of a collage from his father.

The current show includes Alma Thomas, Beverly Buchanan, Humbert L. Howard, Romare Bearden, Moe Booker, Raymond Saunders and Hale Woodruff.

Dr. Ottenberg is also connected to the Academy. He sits on the Committee for the Museum and is a member of the Collectors’ Circle. He served on the Morris Gallery advisory committee for 15 years and has collected art and manuscripts of the painter Arthur B. Carles since the late 1950s. His donation to the Academy, described as a "cache of manuscripts and photographs," is the largest collection of artist papers ever given the museum — some 2,000 letters, historic records, personal documents, postcards and photographs.

Carles (1882-1952) studied at the Academy from 1903-07, winning scholarships to continue his studies in Europe. He was a modernist and a key figure in the Philadelphia art world from 1910 to the late 1930s. He taught painting at the Academy from 1917-25.

The third set of benefactors, the Potamkins, are regarded by many as Philadelphia’s first family of modern American art. The couple also were involved in the art world for more than 50 years and Vivian Potamkin served as a trustee of the Academy for nearly 30 years prior to her death last November. The legacy of the Potamkins was widely expected to go to the Academy, but the heirs decided on a different plan and the acclaimed collection will be broken up.

However, the Academy gets what has been reported as "the choicest and most valuable — eight paintings, one pastel drawing and a sculpture, which are estimated to be worth $18-$22 million." While it was expected that the collection would stay relatively intact, the heirs will keep a few works and the vast majority of the collection will be sold at auction.

The works include paintings by Childe Hassan, John Twachtman, Reginald Marsh and William Michael Harnett. Also in the gift are a pastel by Mary Cassatt and a sculpture by Elie Nadelman. Four of the items left to the Academy represent what have been called "some of the most important artists of the last century at their best." These are pieces by Marooned Harley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Maurice Prendergast and Arthur Dove.

The Academy is still working on how to best display its new materials. The Carles collection will be of interest mainly to scholars and this gift will make the Academy into the source for Carles studies. The Potamkin donation is valuable but diverse, and its exhibition will have to take considerable curatorial work or may just be shown as a single gift. However, the Sorgenti donations are on view now and meld perfectly with the Academy’s avowed purpose. The richness of the African-American contribution to art may not be completely represented here, but works by such artists as Sam Gilliam, Nanette Carter and James Brantly, in addition to those already named, push the point further ahead.

The only caveat is that works by all artists are equally important and to corral one particular group of artists under such a silly category as race denies the true worth of the individual. Some disclosure is in order, as the writer holds one African-American artist, Horace Pippin of Chester County, to be among this country’s finest, and the writer also has previously written positively about the Sorgenti family.

Layers of Meaning: Collage and
Abstraction by African-American Artists of the
20th Century

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Tuesday-Saturday through April 20
118 N. Broad St.
$8 adults; $7 seniors and students; $5 for 18-under;
free for 5-under and members