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This Month's Feature.........

Small Pennsylvania City School District Fosters the Arts

Greater Latrobe School District

Center for Student Creativity
Jessica Golden, Director

In a small city of about 8,000 residents in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, the local school district is the unlikely owner of a veritable treasure of artworks. A collection of over two hundred paintings adorns school hallways at the Greater Latrobe Senior High School. One might presume that as students rush from class to class, the paintings might go unnoticed by young people busy with academics, sports, and social lives propelled by cell phones. Latrobe’s youth, however, are the latest citizens in a long line of town history that values art and actively incorporates it into daily life. The Special Art Collection represents almost eighty years of Latrobe’s dedication to educating its citizens in the personal and civic value of the creative spirit.

In 1936, with the country weighed down by years of economic depression, Latrobe High School’s art teacher Mary Martha Himler knew the value of viewing first-hand high-quality artwork. With scarce resources for her students, she turned to the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, an organization of which she was a member. She arranged to have a selection of Association paintings brought to the school on loan for a special assembly. Her colleague James R. Beatty,also an Associated Artist member,joined her in her efforts. Beatty served as the Student Council Advisor. When he saw the enthusiastic response of the students, he suggested that the council raise money to purchase one of the paintings for the school. The students turned to the community for support and the result was so positive that there was enough money to purchase two paintings. This began a tradition that has continued at the school for decades, such that now the collection totals 204 works.

In the early years of the collection, paintings were loaned to local businesses and displayed in shop windows in town. Residents in their Sunday best clothes would attend lectures about the paintings at the school. In 1938, just two years after the first purchases, a group of supporters organized The Latrobe One Hundred Friends of Art. This organization began the interplay between the school and the community in valuing, protecting, and promoting the collection and still supports it today. In 1991, The Art Conservation Trust was founded, with the mission of overseeing the care and conservation of the collection. It has assisted in many projects, including conservation, documentation, and security for the works.

In 2001, the Trust was instrumental in raising funds for a major building project at the high school that established the Center for Student Creativity. A new high school was slated for Latrobe and the Trust convinced the state of Pennsylvania to incorporate an empty shell for the facility into the plans for the new high school, with the promise that the Trust would raise the funds to finish the interior. Over 1.7 million dollars were raised primarily from within the community – a community that had been nurtured and formed by exposure to the arts through the Special Art Collection.

Center Director Jessica Golden oversees this state-of-the-art facility that features an adaptable space suitable for theatrical and musical productions, lectures, projects, and social gatherings. With special exhibit lighting, wooden flooring, a mirrored wall, and light-controlled window coverings, the facility can be used for a variety of creative activities. It is located in a wing of the high school dedicated to arts and crafts curriculum, with facilities for woodworking, food science, family science, and basic engineering in addition to a wide range of arts media and the school’s auditorium. Director Golden says, “I always tell people we are the loud part of school – anything that makes a lot of noise happens in this wing!” Golden returned to her native Western Pennsylvania from Maine in 2003. Her experience in grant writing for an environmental education non-profit organization coupled with her academic background in studio arts prepared her to take the helm of the newly opened center. “I felt very lucky at the time,” she says, “and I feel even luckier now. This is such a wonderful environment.” She oversees a busy schedule of performances, exhibits, community meetings and seminars. When asked about the impact of the center on the students, she says, “With Latrobe’s emphasis on the three As – Arts, Academics, and Athletics – we provide an atmosphere where any student can be challenged at a high level in whatever field he or she is attracted to. For example, when I first started here, I assumed that if I saw a student hanging around the center that that student must be completely focused on art. But then, I’d see that she was taking an advanced calculus course, too. The students here really have the ability to develop all aspects of their minds.” Because the arts are so omnipresent, students do not feel pigeonholed into certain fields. The school’s art curriculum enables students to pursue specific courses as electives after completing a freshman art exploration course, with advanced levels of various media, art history, and even portfolio preparation.

The widespread participation in the arts by the student body comes into full bloom in the painting selection process each year. Student Council members are responsible for starting the progression from viewing, to selection, to purchase. Student Council members choose three or four juried exhibits in the area to visit each spring. The annual show of the Associated Artists of
Pittsburgh is usually on the agenda, but smaller local exhibits are also included. Golden says that a group of students, guided by a faculty advisor, attends the events. “They take it quite seriously,” she says. “They wear formal clothes, behave respectfully, and carefully consider the art.” From these visits, the student council members select several works and arrange to borrow them for the Art Gala Show in the upcoming autumn. The Gala supportsthe Art Conservation Trust and the Special Art Collection and is widely attended by students, faculty, and the community. From the featured works, students vote to choose which work or works to purchase, continuing the tradition of adding to the collection.

Two works from the collection:  "Greywing Manor" by collection founder James R. Beatty and "Mimi" by Ottmar F. Von Fuehrer
Throughout the school year, the Student Council sponsors several other fundraising events, engaging the entire student body.

The accessibility of the Special Art Collection, hanging throughout the high school,ensures its impact on the student body. Each month, one work is featured as the “Painting of the Month,” with a student-produced short video exploring the features of the work posted online. Faculty members integrate the works into their lesson plans in a variety of subjects, expanding horizons and drawing out new ways of learning. 
While the collection has come to include works from many prominent artists, it is often a personal connection that brings many community members back to the school. Golden tells of how alumni will remember clearly the painting chosen by their class. She relates the story of a 1950 Latrobe graduate – Mr. Bruce Jenkins – who brings his friends and church group for tours of the collection and offers his financial support. As a past Student Council president, he is still raising money for the art collection!

The small city of Latrobe has certainly been transformed by the actions of two teachers dedicated to their students in the bleak days of the Depression. These citizens, teachers, and students stand as a testimony to the value of the arts in fostering human growth, community cohesion, and the imaginative spirit.

Tours of the Special Art Collection are available during school hours. A catalogue of the collection – A Unique Vision of Art – is available for purchase. Call Jessica Golden at 724-539-4220 for more information.

Greater Latrobe Senior High School
Center for Student Creativity
131 High School Road Latrobe, PA 15650

Learn more about the Center for Student Creativity at http://www.glsd.us/domain/563.

Read the Art Conservation Trust’s e-newsletter at http://www.glsd.us/domain/563.