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The Great Depression of the 1930s was a period of retrenchment for the Museum. Because funds from the hard-pressed city were sharply reduced, construction work on the new building’s vast, unfinished interior was suspended for a time and several galleries had to be temporarily set up so that works could still be displayed. From 1931–1933, the city of Philadelphia reduced appropriations of the Museum over 70%. For a short time Memorial Hall had to close entirely, and the Rodin Museum, which had only just opened to the public in 1929, was only open one day a week. Despite setbacks, however, the 1930s witnessed many notable achievements.

Museum staff did all that they could to expand the collections and the awareness of the public. In 1931 W. Norman Brown was appointed the first curator of Indian art--this in addition to the expertise of the legendary Indian art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who acted as the Museum's advisor for Indian art between 1929 and his death in 1947. A section of the Museum devoted to the art of the Medieval and Gothic periods was also completed in 1931, celebrated with two separate issues of the Bulletin.

Later in the year, the Museum’s Living Artists exhibition opened to much "favourable critical comment." R. Sturgis Ingersoll, who would serve as President of the Corporation from 1948 to 1964 as well as Chairman of the Board of Governors from 1947 to 1959, remarked in January 1932 that "the movement called Modern Painting [had] arrived."

1932 was also an important year for photography at the Museum, beginning with the receipt of an important group of 48 works by Frederick Evans given by Eastman Kodak. The first Philadelphia International Salon of Photography, sponsored by the Museum, opened that year as well. The Museum also acquired of one of its most recognizable works of art, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze statue Diana, a gift of the New York Life Insurance Company. Originally created as a weathervane for the second Madison Square Garden building in New York City, Diana was installed in the Museum's Great Stair Hall upon her arrival at the Museum, where she still greets visitors today.

Children remained an important focus of the Museum even in troubled times, and the Children’s Story Hour, which began on Sundays in 1932, proved very popular with the younger crowd. The Museum also took advantage of radio popularity, with a program that ran for 5 minutes a week on Thursday evenings in the Winter/Spring of 1933. Sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the short evening broadcasts were sent over Station WIP and featured various curators giving glimpses into their collections and other items of Museum interest. Favorite works of art were a featured part of lengthier radio programs throughout the decade as well.

Also in 1932, the historic Letitia Street House came under the Museum’s administration. Believed to have been the first brick building erected in Philadelphia (circa 1682), it was for a time the residence of William Penn. The house was named for Penn’s daughter Letitia.

In 1933, after over a decade of legal proceedings, the home of John G. Johnson at 510 South Broad Street was declared unsafe, and the painting collection he bequeathed to the City came to the Museum. The collection included Giovanni di Paolo's Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Ship, Jan Steen's Moses Striking the Rock, Gustave Courbet's Spanish Woman, and the majestic Moorish Chief, by Eduard Charlemont, to name just a few. A suite of galleries featuring the collection was opened to the public in October of that year, and the following year eleven more galleries were completed with the aid of grants from the Works Progress Administration.

"To the unreflective outsider, one fears, museum work consists in guarding and perhaps dusting the objects. On a little higher plane, a curator is thought of as a man with a long beard who sits in a littered office, occasionally peering through a lens at some old curio, ultimately rendering a verdict on its age and fabulous value. The galleries, once arranged, sink gradually into drab stagnation, in which the echoing footsteps of a rare, intruding visitor arouse the resentment of the somnolent guardian. The museum official might be forgiven if, in a moment of weariness, he wished it were actually so. . .but ordinarily he rejoices in the activity, the battle, the game, which enlivens each day.” —Fiske Kimball, January 1935

By early 1935, the Library (which was still located at Memorial Hall) owned about 15,000 volumes. It, too, benefited from WPA funding, and books were catalogued--just as a similar cataloguing effort was taking place in the Registrar’s office with regard to the permanent collection. Great efforts were made to assure the public of the Library’s availability and usefulness for everyone, including "Members of the Museum and Visitors, Collectors, Artists, the Ladies, Gentlemen Amateurs, Teachers, Merchants and Manufacturers." Care was taken to ensure the Museum’s objects could bring enjoyment to not only scholars, but also to "Mr. Everyman."

While the Museum’s continued vitality through the Depression was indeed due to valiant marketing, it was also thanks in great part to J. Stogdell Stokes, who served as President from 1933 until his death in 1948. Working closely with Fiske Kimball, Stokes raised the funds necessary to install what are now some of the Museum's most celebrated and distinctive period rooms--the Room from the House Called Het Scheepje (The Little Ship), the Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), and the Pillared Temple Hall from India, among them. Stokes also launched the institution’s first major capital campaign in February 1937. He announced a ten-year, $15,500,000 program to strengthen the endowment of both the Museum and its Schools and to finish work on galleries to house "the pageant of the evolution of world art, and. . .many rooms which, besides offering suitable atmosphere for their contents, are in themselves works of art." At the time of his announcement, the interior of the Museum was still only one-sixth completed, and more than five-sixths of the institution’s holdings were in storage.

Later in the year, a philanthropic group of Philadelphians called the Friends of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art was formed. Their primary purpose was "to enable the Museum to render greater service to the community than has been possible in the past, to keep the Museum operating finances in a sound and stable position, and to provide adequate current funds until such time as the endowment will have reached a point comparable to that enjoyed by other leading art institutions throughout the country. . ." The Museum’s exhibitions also began to achieve greater notice in the 1930s. In 1936 and 1937 two major painting exhibitions, of Degas and Daumier respectively, won international recognition. Henry McIlhenny’s 1939 exhibition of prints and drawings by William Blake was also considered one of the most important shows in the United States that year.

At the end of the decade, the Museum officially changed its name to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a name that it had been informally called for years. Under the direction of its Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Henri Marceau, the Museum also established its first on-site conservation laboratory in 1939. Until that time, freelance restorers had been performing such work. The Museum's commitment to a more regimented program of conservation came at a time when such issues were receiving worldwide attention, and the new laboratory not only allowed for monitored conservation work but also for technical research that encouraged a scientific approach to the problems of authenticity and identification. Using a variety of photographic methods including infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray imaging, curators collected evidence about the authenticity of objects owned or considered for acquisition by the Museum, as well as works on loan for special exhibition. Photographic records also allowed for a thorough documentation of an object's condition and every step of conservation performed. Other technical shops within the laboratory were equipped for working with wood, metal, and stone, and for tasks such as cleaning, relining, and restoring paintings on various supports.

The 69th Street Branch Museum

On Friday, May 8, 1931, the Museum embarked upon an innovative, if short-lived, experiment in reaching new audiences by opening a branch site at the 69th Street Community Center. Located just outside the city limits in Delaware County with Philip N. Youtz as Curator, the Branch Museum mounted 17 exhibitions during its operation—ranging from Chinese art to 19th-century American painting. It attracted 212,483 visitors in its first year, but despite its popularity and generous funding from the Carnegie Foundation and private donor John H. McClatchy, financial difficulties forced it to close permanently on October 17, 1933.

Among the exhibitions at the 69th Street Branch Museum:
  • 1931: American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century; French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; Medieval and Early Renaissance Metal Work; America of the Early Republic 1776–1830: Chinese Art
  • 1932: Indian Art of North and South America; Paintings by Woodstock Artists; Philadelphia International Salon of Photography; Oils and Murals by the Mexican Painter, Diego Rivera; Contemporary American Painters; Egyptian Art

Major Exhibitions

  • 1930: Works by Thomas Eakins
  • 1931: Living Artists
  • 1932: Design for the Machine
  • 1933: Manet and Renoir
  • 1934: Mexican Art
  • 1935: Cézanne
  • 1936: VanGogh; Degas
  • 1937: Surrealism: Art of the Marvelous; Daumier
  • 1938: Renoir: Later Phases
  • 1939: William Blake

Major Gifts and Acquisitions

  • 1930: The Foulc Collection of Gothic and Renaissance art; the Bowman Memorial of Romanesque works
  • 1931: The Samuel Yellin Collection
  • 1931: Lansdowne House Period Room
  • 1932: A group of 48 Frederic Evans photographs given by Eastman Kodak; Nicholas Poussin’s Birth of Venus purchased from the Hermitage; Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Diana
  • 1933: The William S. Pilling Collection of old master prints; the John G. Johnson Collection is transferred to the Museum; Constantin Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany
  • 1937: Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers and Mont Sainte-Victoire of 1903
  • 1938: Edgar Degas's' The Ballet Class; Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse; the George H. Lorimer Glass Collection
  • 1939: The Rice Collection of French Decorative Arts; the Stotesbury Collection of French Sculpture