The Berman at 30

As Ursinus College turns 150 this year, the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art is celebrating its 30th birthday. Home to some of the most captivating art exhibitions in the region, its directors, past and present, offer a retrospective on the impact the museum has had on the college and on the art world.

by Geoff Gehman

This fall, the Berman Museum celebrated the college’s 150th anniversary with a 150-hammer salute. Listeners sat between 150 people pounding nails at 75 sawhorses in a workshop symphony. At a designated time, every player bit into an apple, producing one of the loudest fruit-based crunches on record.

Douglas Henderson’s Music for 150 Carpenters turned the Berman into an avant-garde concert hall, one of its many vibrant, vital roles since opening in 1989 in a former library. Over 30 years, the museum has been a school, a laboratory, and a center for exploring and experiencing cultures around the world and across the centuries.

It’s charged and changed the campus climate every which way: intellectually, emotionally, socially, visually.

The story of the Berman is best told by its only two directors: Lisa Tremper Hanover, who helped map its operations while putting it on the map, and Charlie Stainback, who has provided more challenging maps—with hammers and homing pigeons carrying Cuban cigars.

Joining this retrospective is Nancy Berman, president and executive director of the Berman Foundation, a major supporter of the museum’s collecting, exhibiting and expanding. The charity was established by her late parents, Philip and Muriel, who endowed their namesake museum with funds, art objects, connections, ideas and truckloads of great good will.

The Hanover Era: Creating a Global Ecumenical Forum, 1987–2012

Lisa Tremper Hanover helped make the Berman Museum from scratch. A former registrar for a prominent art collection, she anchored funding, building, staffing and exhibiting, curating more than 200 shows herself. She helped coordinate the construction of a 2010 wing with galleries, a workspace for studying works on paper, and a green-roof sculpture terrace. She supplemented the addition by temporarily displaying over 3,000 pieces from the permanent collection that needed to be assessed.

On Hanover’s watch, the Berman became a global ecumenical forum. She balanced international with regional, traditional with contemporary, timeless with topical. She showcased women artists, acquiring their works and devoting a show to their self-portraits. She promoted the Berman by lecturing to and serving on committees with museum professionals. She expanded area audiences by talking at retirement homes, sometimes bringing Berman artifacts as show-and-tell. Her museum-studies seminar introduced students to creating virtual exhibits, inspiring graduates to become museum professionals.

The former director says she had a remarkably fruitful partnership with Phil and Muriel Berman, who were major collectors, philanthropists, ambassadors and instigators. Their mutual projects ranged from an exhibit of Rodin bronzes from a vaunted private collection to a bequest of works by and from Francoise Gilot, a Picasso muse who befriended the Bermans.

“Phil and Muriel trusted me,” Hanover says. “They never intervened or interfered.”

Nancy Berman confirms Hanover as an open-minded, open-tuned teammate of her “spark-plug” parents. She praises Hanover for turning an exhibit of biblical archaeological relics from Israel into a traveling show, and for transforming the Ursinus campus into a garden/academy for her parents’ large collection of strikingly diverse sculptures.

The Bermans rewarded Hanover’s stewardship by creating a $1 million endowment for the museum’s directorship and Nancy Berman added a $1 million Berman Foundation gift to build the museum’s wing.

First Show

Sixty works from Philip and Muriel Berman’s inaugural donation of 1,200-plus pieces. The banquet included an Edward Hopper painting, an Edgar Degas pastel and a sculpture by Henry Moore, one of the Bermans’ many artist friends and partners.

Spectrum of Shows

Photographs addressing the impermanence of shelter; revisions of such women’s domestic tools as a washboard and a dressmaker’s figure; portraits of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud owned by George Bause ’77, a geriatric anesthesiologist who owns an anesthesiology museum.

Favorite Memories

Hanover enjoyed regular 7 a.m. phone calls from Phil Berman, who always brimmed with ideas and introductions. Opening receptions, she recalls, were splashy affairs, with Muriel Berman wearing jewelry designed by Alexander Calder and Phil wearing a black-and-red cape that could have been worn by Toulouse-Lautrec. The couple helped make an often-demanding job “really fun.”

The Stainback Era: Growing the Laboratory, 2012–present

Charlie Stainback has made the Berman more engaging by making it more challenging. On his watch, the museum has paired John James Audubon’s classic prints of birds with radical avian images by living artists; and photos of people sleeping in public spaces with Andy Warhol’s five-hour film of a man sleeping. Stainback’s mission is to convince skeptical viewers that the insignificant is significant, or rather, it may be significant for future generations. He likes to point out that Van Gogh’s profound paintings were dismissed as perverse during his lifetime. He aims to make people “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says, to be intrigued enough to ask, “Why am I intrigued?”

Stainback came to Ursinus as a veteran art educator; at Skidmore College he helped build a museum learning center, the Tang Teaching Museum. Not surprisingly, he’s expanded the Berman’s role as a behind-the-scenes school. His Museum Studies exhibition featured immaculate copies of the backs of such famous paintings as the “Mona Lisa.” Viewers became curators as they scanned re-creations of curled labels, rusty screws and stamps of venues visited.

Museum Studies helped launch the college’s minor in museum studies. Stainback consults the core course, MS-200B, in which students co-curate a Berman show. The latest exhibit, Adam DelMarcelle’s Bearing Witness, addressed the opioid epidemic that killed his brother.

Nancy Berman praises Stainback for improving the Ursinus community with innovative, influential programs. She calls the museum studies course he taught during his first semester in Collegeville a “brilliant” example of pedagogy. A former museum director herself, she rewarded his stewardship by establishing a $1 million Berman Foundation endowment for special exhibitions, a gift that has spurred more college funds.

The money will come in handy next year when Stainback stages Virgil Marti: Title TK, the first solo show to occupy all of the museum’s temporary galleries.

First Show

An alphabetical sample of student-selected works from the museum’s collection in honor of the Berman Foundation’s donation of 1,300-plus objects. “U” was represented by three portraits of George Washington by unknown artists, “B” by a finger painting by Betsy the chimp, a 1950s star.

Spectrum of Shows

Installations about personal spaces; works by African Americans about protecting and violating civil rights; contemporary interpretations of real estate, including glass jars of paints mapping buildings on the Washington Mall.

Favorite Memories

An elderly Ursinus graduate bet Stainback lunch that fellow residents of her retirement home wouldn’t like a mind-bending show. She lost the bet after her comrades endorsed “Trading with the Enemy,” Duke Riley’s installation with videos of camera-carrying pigeons he trained to fly to Key West with Cuban cigars they then flew to Havana.

Editor’s Note: Read more about Douglas Henderson’s Music for 150 Carpenters in the winter 2020 edition of Ursinus Magazine this March.

Charlie Stainback (left) and Lisa Tremper Hanover (right) in the main gallery room of the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College.


Nicole Hope Matthews