A small art museum highlights big names like Picasso and Goya

When Sarah Jesse was an art history undergraduate at Oberlin College, she embellished her dorm room with an original painting by Robert Rauschenberg. She recalls paying $5 to rent the artwork as part of her school’s unusual (and deeply trusting) practice of lending objects from its collection to aesthetically-oriented students.

The loan had a profound impact on Jesse, who recognized that his university placed more value on the notion that art should be accessible to everyone than on liability issues. Today, she is director of the Academy Art Museum (AAM) in Easton, Md., which has a similar accessibility mission. Founded in 1958 by six locals, the small museum has a permanent collection that contains works by figures such as Francisco Goya, Mary Cassatt, Ansel Adams and Pablo Picasso, as well as contemporary artists like Zanele Muholi, Graciela Iturbide and James Turrell. And it regularly organizes exhibitions of artists closer to home.

The museum – where admission is just $3 for adults – holds workshops on subjects ranging from plein-air painting to printmaking. To attract a younger cohort, its Emerging Collectors Circle offers museum members 45 and under a limited-edition print signed by the museum’s artist-in-residence. “It’s always been our mission for the museum to act as a window, to provide a view that looks both inward and outward,” Jesse told me.

All of this in a town once known for its seafaring merchants and farmers nestled on the east coast of Maryland. I consider myself a bit of a museum junkie and had never even heard of AAM until a press release recently arrived in my inbox announcing a major exhibition: “Fickle Mirror: Dialogues in Self -Portrait”. It included a Warhol from the National Gallery of Art. I decided to make the two-hour trip from DC across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Easton, which has a population of 17,000.

The town is quaint to the point that I mistook the three-story museum for a bed-and-breakfast; its Queen Anne façade matches those of the rest of the town centre. But once inside, the vibe is much more mini-MoMA.

What is not in its permanent collection comes from major borrowings. “Fickle Mirror” included an early work by Amy Sherald, who painted the portrait of Michelle Obama commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery; his painting at the AAM, which came from a private collector, was a haunting self-portrait, part of his MFA thesis. The show also featured a burgeoning painting by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby titled “I Refuse to Be Invisible”. The work – one of the largest in the exhibition – comes from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. With a shared vision of bringing great art to rural spaces, Crystal Bridges – in Bentonville, Ark. – financed the considerable cost of transporting the work to Maryland.

‘Fickle Mirror’ closed in early October, but the museum plans to fill the space with an exhibit called ‘Mary Cassatt: Work and Leisure’. The project will ask viewers to see Cassatt’s paintings and prints – images of women’s social and private lives as well as the intimate bonds between mothers and children – through the prism of today.

“I know from first-hand experience how [art] maybe,” says Jesse, 42, who grew up on a dirt road in rural Michigan with parents who both worked in the auto industry. As a teenager, she visited the Detroit Institute of Arts, where in the inner courtyard she came across the Diego Rivera murals, 27 panels depicting the evolution of the Ford Motor Co. In Rivera’s Worker Portraits, she saw his parents. “The idea that an image could have the power to trigger strong reactions in people – including protests from some museum visitors – had a huge impact on me,” she recalls. “From the age of 16, I knew that I wanted to work in museums. It’s been my goal to run a museum for decades.

She arrived at the AAM in June 2021, after stints at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum already had a core audience, but Jesse and curator Mehves Lelic hope to draw the non-traditional museum visitor through their doors. “Of course we have to meet people where they are,” says Jesse, “but we also want to open them up to new ways of looking at contemporary art. What is beautiful? What is art? What is interesting?”

Lelic, who grew up in Istanbul and is an accomplished photographer, says it’s important to support local artists who serve their community, including Baltimore-based Hoesy Corona, who created commissioned work that hangs in the bright atrium of the museum. Corona’s article alludes to both climate change and immigration; for me, it reminded me of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series, 60 paintings depicting the journeys of millions of black Americans who left the Jim Crow South in search of a better life elsewhere.

Another factor helps AAM attract visitors: since 2015, developer Paul Prager has been single-handedly transforming the sleepy town. His company Bluepoint Hospitality, which owns and operates boutique restaurants and businesses in Easton, has also supported many local nonprofits and funded AAM’s shows.

It was downtown, in fact, where I bumped into an acquaintance, Maire McArdle, a multimedia artist who, with her husband and fellow artist Steve Walker, now lives in Easton. The last time I saw her she was living in Bethesda, Maryland and working as a design director. After 25 years at Bethesda, the couple moved to Easton. “He chose us,” McArdle told me. “We knew we wanted to be in an art-centric community.” And yet, they only discovered AAM after moving here. Soon Walker was teaching ceramics at the museum. The couple also taught photography classes together at the AAM.

While the museum has firmly established itself in Easton, its director and curator regularly visit studios and art exhibits in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. “We’re always looking at what’s been done and what’s being done,” says Lelic. Jesse adds: “The dialogue between the two” – the art of the past, the art of the present – “is what excites us”. All for the benefit of their audience: art lovers on the East Coast—and beyond—who are waiting to be thrilled.

Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.

Mildred D. Field