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Susquehanna Art Museum prepares for Midtown construction

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New leadership has emerged at the Susquehanna Art Museum as the nonprofit organization prepares to start construction on a permanent home in Midtown Harrisburg.

Illinois native and experienced museum administrator Laurene Buckley assumed the role of executive director in late January after spending much of her career in New York.

She is tasked with spearheading the museum's highly anticipated building project at North Third and Calder streets.

"This is a chance to bring Midtown and Harrisburg to life," she said of the museum project, which will get SAM out of temporary offices at Strawberry Square after more than two years.

SAM had operated out of the Kunkel building on Market Street before its volunteer directors decided to move in order to create a fully accredited museum. Some of its exhibitions, in the interim, have been hosted by the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Fundraising challenges and a lengthy approval process delayed the start of the project, which was expected in 2011.

"If these times were easy, it would have been done already," said Andrew Giorgione, a Harrisburg attorney and one of the instrumental voices on the SAM board. "It's been hard."

In November, SAM kicked off the public phase of a capital campaign for the $7 million project. It has about $6.1 million in pledges and state commitments — most of that from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, also known as RCAP.

The museum's board is hoping to raise the remaining $900,000 for construction and an additional $5 million for an endowment.

But in order to get moving on the project, SAM has taken a loan to close the construction gap, with the goal of opening the museum debt-free, board President Jack Scott said.

A ceremonial groundbreaking is planned for 4:30 p.m. May 7 on the museum site. The goal is to have full construction under way by October and to open the museum by October 2014, officials said.

Harrisburg's first dedicated art museum will be a two-story, roughly 23,000-square-foot building. SAM will restore the original Keystone building, a former bank, and construct a major addition along North Third Street.

There will be more than 7,000 square feet of gallery space — much of it built with movable walls for multiple exhibition capacity, Buckley said.

The museum, which will serve as a borrowing institution from other major art museums, is expected to meet various standards in order to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. Those include climate control, security, delivery space and structural integrity, she said.

SAM officials said they believe the Midtown museum will spark additional development in Midtown. The Yellow Bird Cafe recently opened near the museum site.

"It's going to start here and grow from there," Giorgione said.

The museum will add another attraction to the community, he said, and is hoping to build critical mass in a neighborhood that includes the Midtown Cinema and Harrisburg Area Community College.

SAM will be what helps make Harrisburg an arts destination, Scott said.

The new site will not only draw local and regional visitors but also strengthen the museum's outreach efforts, he said. SAM's VanGo! museum on wheels program reaches about 20,000 children annually, Buckley said.

"The longer you are without exhibition space, the more difficult it becomes," he said. "Having a (permanent) building helps."

Buckley, who last worked as an adjunct assistant professor at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, said her main goal is opening that building. In the interim, her focus will be developing short- and long-term financial plans for the museum and working towards accreditation, she said.

Fostering and maintaining alliances with other museums and engaging with the community are ongoing goals, she said, hoping to re-energize museum collections and get people to learn more about the museum.

She also is working to book opening shows for next year.

"The community is pretty excited. Midtown is really excited," Giorgione said.

Lancaster hires administrator

Longtime Lancaster Museum of Art volunteer and watercolor artist Judy Smith assumed the role of administrator at the start of the year.

Prior to the museum, Smith spent two years as executive director of the Long’s Park Amphitheater Foundation.

She oversaw the local chapter office of the Arthritis Foundation before that.

“Art has always been my passion, my interest,” said Smith, who is one of two people on staff.

Already involved in the museum, Smith said the move to administrator was a natural fit. She is the face in the community who recruits and supervises museum volunteers and connects with donors.

“Like everyone hit by the economy, you are trying to do as much as you can with as little as you can,” she said. “While the museum is free, we have day-to-day expenses.”

With a small staff, spreading the word about museum exhibitions and other offerings can be a challenge, she said.

“We are always looking for new things. (But) right now, with limited staff and funds, we want to keep going what we have had going,” Smith said.

The museum opened the year with selections from its permanent collection. Many of the pieces were donated by artists or collectors.

It has seven exhibitions scheduled throughout the year and plans to open an art library on the third floor, Smith said.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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