A gift from a Pittsburgh couple to Pennsylvania College of Technology has created The Gallery at Penn College’s first permanent collection.
Michael Stuhldreher and Carol Totten donated a collection of African art that includes about 20 pieces, as well as art books that correspond to the region and time the works represent. The collection includes such functional pieces as masks, baskets and a Kenyan headrest used to avoid ground-borne creatures while sleeping on the ground.
The collection is made up of useful, three-dimensional pieces, Stuhldreher explained, because most tribes are nomadic and do not hang art from walls. The same is largely true except for weavings of a collection of Latin American art the couple will loan to the gallery this fall.
The African art collection just part of the roughly 500 art pieces Stuhldreher and Totten have collected over the past 51 years also began as a loan to be displayed for the gallery’s August opening in its new location in the college’s Madigan Library. But the couple later decided to allow the college to keep it. The two have promised their entire collection the art plus 700 art books that relate to the works as a bequest.
The couple’s collection represents a wide spectrum of time and almost every region of the world. Stuhldreher and Totten have gathered the art based on aesthetics buying what appeals to them. They have purchased artwork both directly from craftspeople during their travels and from galleries.
“Many pieces were given particularly to me for work that I did for people in architecture,” Stuhldreher said. “Many times I would say, ‘Don’t bill me,’ and they would go out and get me something.”
One of those gifts is part of the African collection now displayed in the lobby of The Gallery at Penn College. A pair of wooden figures a man and woman crafted in Kenya was given to Stuhldreher by Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa, the Catholic Church’s first African cardinal.
“Behind every piece is a story of where it was seen, where we bought it,” Stuhldreher explained.
Stuhldreher began collecting art in 1955 when he was taking graduate courses at Yale University, where he earned three degrees. He had “a few dollars,” so he decided to buy a few pieces that reminded him of what he was studying.
While Stuhldreher began acquiring his collection, Totten began collecting as well although the couple did not yet know each other. When they met, they found that their collections and tastes complemented each other, and they were in accord when making future purchases.
“What makes the collection so valuable to our students is that it is a broad cross section of the type of art that’s crafted in a region,” said Lenore G. Penfield, gallery director. “And because of the art books, the students can get a good feel for that particular genre of the art.”
Totten and Stuhldreher decided to make their bequest to Penn College after a friend suggested they donate the collection to a college or library. Because Stuhldreher’s son lives in Williamsport, he was familiar with Penn College and knew it was building a new library that included a gallery.
“We feel very good about it going there,” he said.