Penn State President Eric J. Barron was spot on, in my view, when he said, “Barbara Palmer ... embodied the very best of what it means to be a Penn Stater.” For most of us, what we remember about our university experience is not the classes, the campus, the term papers, or the teachers. Years after graduation, most of us remember our friends.
Barbara Palmer, who died this week at 93, was a friend to big, prestigious organizations like Penn State University, the United Way, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and her alma mater, Iowa State University. She was also a friend to those without position, without power, without prominence. She befriended students, fledgling artists and children, to name a few. Barbara Palmer was a friend to many and she was a friend to me.
Her generosity and philanthropy and that of her husband, Jim, were well known. Of course, her legacy lives on. Barbara was a planner, so she wouldn’t have had it any other way. And, from this art historian’s chair, Barbara was an art lover in the truest sense. She and Jim not only collected and studied American art, but they shared their collection and their knowledge with others through the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. She urged others to share a love of art, too. I think that was always the plan.
As a Penn State student, I was introduced to the Palmers by a Penn State alumna and art tour de force named Kahren J. Arbitman, then director of the Palmer Museum of Art. This memorable introductory meeting took place at the Palmers’ home. I recounted large parts of it in a letter I wrote to my mother in the fall of 1991 as a way to assure her that I was settling into my new school and surroundings. My mother wrote to Barbara to thank her for hosting me that day, which sparked a pen-pal relationship between the two women who were born only three years apart.
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Barbara shared her love of American art with me for years from her lovely home office overlooking Happy Valley and at the Palmer Museum, where I worked and studied from 1991-1994. I researched, cataloged and coordinated the exhibition of the Palmers’ vast and impressive private art collection which has since been gifted to the museum for the public to enjoy. On their behalf, I composed letters to esteemed curators of major museums, spoke to art dealers at home and abroad, coordinated shipments of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts to exhibitions and auctions, met with curators and registrars, and visited artists’ studios.
With the Palmers, I met architect Charles Moore, who designed the new Palmer Museum of Art. I shared the stage with art critic Irving Sandler. I watched Will Barnet paint in his New York studio loft. The Palmers showed me the ropes, redirected me when I veered off path, and commended my achievements. Barbara was a driving force behind a pretty face and a sweet smile.
Work days at the Palmers’ home and at the Palmer Museum were exciting, invigorating and sometimes exhausting. At 26, I wore sneakers to keep up with Jim and Barbara! Most days, I shared an electric typewriter and recycled paper with Jim and my enthusiasm for art and swimming with Barbara. I had the privilege to work with a fascinating couple and watch, over time, one of the country’s finest American art collections come together.
I was surrounded by fabulous original works of art by America’s fine art masters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Milton Avery, Dale Chihuly, George Luks, Robert Henri, Joseph Stella, Jerome Witkin and an Abstract Expressionist sculptor named Seymour Lipton. Because of the Palmers’ insight and generosity, I became very knowledgeable about Lipton’s brand of Abstract Expressionism diving head first into researching and analyzing his work. Later, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, curated the national museum exhibition tour, and wrote the definitive book on Seymour Lipton’s work from the Palmer collection. These Lipton sculptures are now on display at the Palmer Museum. The Palmers understood what it meant to collect art with a purpose, to give with a purpose, and to inspire others. I was a student whom they made part of their world — they made me part of the art world.
You never forget the people who gave you a jump start when you were just starting out. For me, that was Barbara Palmer. She never lost her love of art or her will to make friends. Like so many others, I have been lucky to call Barbara my friend.