Judy Herman's Main Line Art Center: An Impressive Body of Work

How the community-minded art enthusiast brought new life to the 75-year old institution.

Main Line Art Center executive director Judy Herman retires this month after 25 years. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)As Judy Herman steps down from her post at Main Line Art Center this month, she leaves behind a much different organization than the one she remembers a quarter-century ago.

“Finding a place that needed to be built up was exciting,” says Herman, who became its executive director after stints at the Please Touch Museum and the Franklin Institute. “It was in my own community, and it had such possibilities.”

Herman cites a study at the time that indicated 20 percent of local folks had heard of the center and wanted to take classes—but they hadn’t yet. To reach that group, there would have to be changes.

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Founded in 1937, Main Line Art Center had a financial system that Herman describes as “frayed around the edges.” Its building—an old Victorian structure nicknamed “the white house”—had fallen into disrepair over the years. Herman worked to modernize both, tracking the dollars and cents by computer and fixing up the physical structure. She eventually added accessibility features like an elevator.

“Slowly, it started to grow,” Herman says. “And we kept growing until we got to the point where we reached the ceiling and needed to expand.”

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Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the center completed a $2 million capital campaign in 1999, increasing the original space by 50 percent and matching one donor’s challenge, which established a $1.4 million quasi-endowment. It continues its mission of providing access to artists of all ages, skill levels and abilities through high-quality classes led by teaching pros, community outreach programs serving diverse audiences, cutting-edge exhibitions, events, and more.

Outreach is a key part of the strategy. MLC has established an art program for the blind and partially sighted in Chester, and another for kids with developmental and physical disabilities. Herman also led four public art projects, including the popular Puttin’ on the Dog—an art exhibition and auction with 50 fiberglass figures—and C3: Create, Connect, Collect, which linked artists to both other artists and patrons. Even during the recent economic downturn, the center has been a champion of artists and a partner in their successes.

In September 2011, MLC’s vibrantly painted Art Alive Mobile van began bringing works to libraries and public events around the community. The center promotes its visits through viral marketing on Twitter, Facebook and a dedicated blog. To further meet with the demands of the digital age, MLC now features members’ work online.

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“These are just some of the watershed [moments] that have given me pride,” says Herman. “We’re well known for our programs for exceptional artists—people with special needs who have incredible talent but might not have had an entré into art.”

Such programs set the center apart from others in the art-rich Philadelphia area. MLC staff has a hyper-local focus, working to connect with residents who “come for the quality, and often stay if they’re going to pursue the arts,” says Herman. “We provide a welcoming place, and it nurtures growth in the arts.”

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The curriculum has grown to meet the needs of professional artists. Many former students have gone on to establish their own galleries, enter academic programs or work for art museums.

The more than 120 classes offered each semester at MLC include painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry making, fiber arts and photography. As more and more students move toward professional careers, the center has adapted to meet their needs, adding courses in career development, marketing and digital portfolios. “In terms of a place to learn or exhibit, we really are contemporary. Plus, our culture sets us apart,” says Herman. “Every person here is dedicated to the art center—and it shows.”

During Herman’s tenure, the center has expanded dramatically, becoming a hub of the region’s art community. Once a small nonprofit with a budget of $200,000, it’s developed into a mid-size one with an annual budget of $1.3 million and a staff that’s grown from two to 10. “You really need to be good to get better,” Herman says. “We improved our classes and put a lot of thought into what we did. People started to recognize that.”

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Under Herman’s leadership, MLC has received three Pew Charitable Trusts leadership grants, along with major grants from other national and local foundations and corporations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Connelly Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

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Though Judy Herman spent much of her childhood in art museums, her interest in creating began at an overnight camp in Maine. The Abington native felt homesick and had little interest in sports. Instead, she spent her time in the arts-and-crafts cabin under the guidance of a man who worked in the art department at the University of Massachusetts. “He was fabulous,” says Herman. “It was an amazingly equipped studio. And I, for the rest of my life, have been able to do metals.”

After taking art classes in high school, she enrolled in the art history program at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. While that would typically lead to a life of research. Herman instead found herself in Boston, which was teeming with mural artists at the time. The experience spurred her interest in fostering the connection between art and community.

Herman earned a masters in arts from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a teacher and an education specialist. After returning to Philadelphia, she joined the Main Line Art Center in 1988. “There have been many wonderful experiences—it’s a great place to work,” says Herman. “I used to feel like I slept here.”

In her office, Herman keeps several works given to her by former students. One is a kite on which a painting of Ben Franklin’s face merges with a hot-air balloon. Another is a bright-yellow piece covered with handmade stamps of ducks, penguins, frogs, turtles and other animals. As much as any personal accolades—like her Artists Equity Award—these pieces are a testament to Herman’s impact on three generations of MLC students.

In the years to come, Herman plans to continue being a part of the vibrant Main Line art community—albeit in a different way. She’ll travel, spend time with family, take and teach classes, and volunteer with other organizations. “I love interacting with the kids. I like the synergy of people interacting with art,” she says. “It’s a whole new chapter.”

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The pairing of MLC’s 75th anniversary and Herman’s retirement provided an ideal opportunity to reflect. At a soiree held in April, 300 people gathered to celebrate her accomplishments, toast her as she entered the next phase of her life and glimpse MLC’s future. “Judy’s a huge supporter of the arts and full of energy,” says Elaine Lisle, president of MLC’s board of directors “She’s been the anchor of the art center.”

The party was easily the largest event the center has ever held, and all proceeds benefited its arts education and community outreach programs. The evening had a 1930s theme, with period-inspired hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, live music, and swing dancers. In addition to a silent auction that included one-of-a-kind work from 25 artists, the event featured a special exhibit called Out of the Attic, in which artists who’d attended classes at the center were invited to display work from that time. They shared stories about the part the center played in transforming their lives. Such an exhibit couldn’t have been more appropriate.

“During her tenure, Judy has grown the center into an important venue for art in our community,” says the board’s past president, Steve Holstad Jr. “But perhaps more important is the welcoming and nurturing environment she’s fostered.”

Board member Martha Lubell agrees. “She’s the heart of the organization and makes everything run very smoothly,” says Lubell. “She’s going to be hard to replace.”

Herman led the search committee to find the next executive director, who hadn’t been announced at press time. Meanwhile, her leadership has solidified the center’s future. It has also helped to kick-start another building renovation project next year, funded by a $600,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Plans call for improving accessibility, upgrading studio spaces and increasing technology in the classrooms to modernize photography classes. Suffice to say, Main Line Art Center is a secret no longer.

To learn more, visit mainlineart.org.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!