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Susquehanna Life

Palmer Museum of Art's Director Sees a Museum’s Inherent Value

Jun 11, 2018 05:53PM

Erin Coe

By Jennifer Pencek

After 20 years in a career, some would be ready for a change. But Erin Coe embraces a passion for a museum’s inherent value.

“I’ve worked in museums for my entire career because of my deep-rooted belief in the role of museums in society,” Coe said. “Museums matter. They provide authentic encounters with original works of art that you can’t find anywhere else. While we may not be in the business of saving lives, museums nurture human life.”

Moving forward

Coe arrived at the Palmer Museum of Art on Penn State’s University Park campus as director in September 2017. Previously, she served as chief curator, and most recently director, of The Hyde Collection, a nationally accredited art museum and historic house in Glens Falls, New York. Coe also has held positions with the Shaker Museum and Library, the University Art Museum at the University at Albany (SUNY) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a first step in her new position, Coe solicited and has been listening to community feedback to help chart the museum’s future direction, including meeting with Penn State administrators, faculty and staff, and members of the Palmer Advisory Board and other volunteers.  “I was hired by Dean Barbara Korner to ‘put the Palmer on the map;’ this has guided my thinking from day one,” Coe said. “I’ve learned the community wants change, and to see the museum evolve and become more engaged with the campus and local community. I’ve been working with the staff on ways to increase the Palmer’s visibility and impact.”

Coe cites the importance of the museum taking a more active role in reaching every student at Penn State. “We want to ensure the museum is a defining piece of Penn State education,” she stressed. “And to better engage faculty so they see Palmer as a partner in advancing their research and curricular goals.”

Among the alterations Coe has overseen are the reinstallation of the American art collection; installation of a flat-screen monitor in the museum lobby on which promotional slides are broadcast throughout campus; and the placement of a colorful, welcoming banner outside the museum.

“The future of the Palmer ultimately depends on its ability to recognize and adapt to change,” Coe said. “As an academic art museum at a major research university, the Palmer must address the complex issues of our time, and respond to challenges brought about by a 21st century audience with a very different set of expectations of the museum experience.”

Making an impact

Coe made some adjustments to the 2018 exhibition schedule when she arrived, including moving the Dan Massad exhibition A Small Radius of Light from a relatively small gallery on the first floor to the main gallery on the second floor. “Given the retrospective nature of this show devoted to Dan’s work, the exhibition, for which we are publishing a major catalogue, was clearly deserving of greater presence and visibility,” Coe explained. “This afforded curator Joyce Robinson the opportunity to enhance the exhibition with additional loans.”

Conversely, Coe added the exhibition, Object Lessons: American Still-Life Painting in the Nineteenth Century (Sept. 4 through Dec. 16) and will have it installed in the smaller gallery on the first floor, a more intimate space adjacent to the Snowiss Galleries of American Art. “This is the perfect complement to the permanent collection galleries that focus on nineteenth-century American art,” Coe explained.

“The exhibition, through about 25 works, aims to convey the variety and richness of still-life painting in the United States during the 19th century,” added Adam Thomas, curator of American art at the Palmer. “And to offer a thoughtful complement to the concurrent retrospective devoted to Dan Massad. Hopefully, the story that emerges for visitors is about the multiple cultural resonances of American still-life painting—whether showing the bounty of the continent, serving as humble meditations on object-filled lives or staging sly deceptions, for instance.”

While many people love American still-life painting, one upcoming Palmer exhibit explores another love affair—with plastic. In Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials (through June 17)—60 works by 30 contemporary artists explore the entanglements of humans’ devotion to plastic. Visitors encounter meticulous drawings, photographs and video installations, as well as 3D-printed objects and sculptures fabricated from found plastic.

“I think most of us have very little sense of just how much our lives—and our bodies—are permeated by plastic,” said Joyce Robinson, curator of the exhibition. “One of our goals is to provide a forum for visitors to engage with plastic on many levels, and to consider the ways that this modern materials has transformed contemporary life and the environment.

“Art has the potential,” continued Robinson, “to communicate clearly, forcefully and emotionally important information about our world in ways that the written word alone can’t.”

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to 2019, Coe plans to open new exhibitions on Saturdays instead of the traditional Tuesdays. “We want to ensure members receive a ‘preview’ of the special exhibition rather than us having an opening reception after the show has been open for several days.”
Coe also plans to add more traveling exhibitions to the calendar, as well as exhibitions co-created with Penn State faculty.

The final word 

Within the framework of a museum, ultimately, Coe believes, the unique setting of an academic art museum offers different benefits than a public art museum.
“In an academic art museum, you can take more risk and be more innovative,” she said. “And there’s more freedom—you can push the envelope and be more experimental in your programming. Academic art museums are primarily sites for teaching and learning, therefore pedagogy is central to the mission.”
For more information on the Palmer Museum of Art, including the 2018 exhibition schedule, visit
Visit for more information about the works on display at Palmer Museum of Art.

Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of Penn State’s Gender Equity Center.

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