SAMA Museums Brings Art to Rural Communities

Article excerpt

For folks in a big city, attending a museum is no big thing. For most, a museum is a place to go a couple times a year for entertainment, a little bit of education and a brush with culture, both our own and that of others.

But what about those out in the far-flung corners of our region? With a more rural population and limited public transportation, museums often are hard to find and difficult to get to.

But there is one organization that serves six of those counties, and it is right in our own backyard. For more than 30 years, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art has made fine art and culture accessible to the residents of Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.

Although the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art -- or "SAMA," as it is affectionately called by most -- is considered one organization, it actually is four museums. With locations in Altoona in Blair County, Johnstown and Loretto in Cambria County, and Ligonier Valley in Westmoreland, it is widely recognized as the most successful longstanding satellite museum system in the country.

"Yes, that sounds right to me," says Rusty Baker, former director of the Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, and current membership- development and marketing coordinator for the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations in Harrisburg. "It was probably rare at one time, but more and more, institutions are heading in this way, whether it means a real building in a small town for exhibits to reach the people or a virtual museum experience on the Internet. The trend is to reach out to audiences, wherever that may be."


But it didn't start that way.

Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1975, the museum was founded by a small group of determined individuals led by Sean M. Sullivan, then president of Saint Francis College in Loretto.

The museum first opened its doors on the campus of St. Francis under the direction of Michael M. Strueber, chairman of the school's Fine Arts Department.

Wanting to focus on 19th and 20th century American art, the museum managed to gather a small collection of 47 paintings, sculptures and drawings and a collection of 20 etchings by John Sloan.

The plan then was to bring art and culture to a largely underserved rural audience, free of charge. It seemed a daunting task.

It wasn't until Strueber attended the 1977 national conference of the American Association of Museums in Boston that he came upon the idea of expanding the museum via a satellite location.

At that time, the Boston Museum was experiencing low attendance. To solve the problem, it experimented with opening a satellite location in Boston's popular Quincy Market, a major tourist attraction.

The idea was so successful that Strueber couldn't help but think that the idea would work for his small-town museum.

"That was as an enormous challenge at the time -- to try to serve the people of that whole region. And I really liked the idea of partnering with a commercial entity such as was done in Boston with Quincy Market. And for free. No costs other than staffing," Strueber says.

"I thought it was an absolutely brilliant marketing idea for the Boston Museum to go into the most public space in Boston to promote itself and its collections," Strueber says.

Strueber brought the idea back to the museum's board of trustees, and board member Gerald Wolf, the retired president and CEO of Wolf Furniture and board member to this day, took to the idea right away.

Wolf was the driving force behind opening the museum's first branch in 1979 in a small exhibition space in the lobby of a Mellon Bank building in Altoona.

Just as he had planned, Strueber says, "The host facility paid for all operational costs except for the exhibition costs and staffing. That met with great success. …